Capitol sit-in won't budge
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
A sit-in at the governor's office is likely to stretch into the weekend, parents say, unless Gov. Linda Lingle agrees to meet face-to-face with the teachers union to find a quick solution to public school furlough days.
The protest by Save Our Schools Hawaii, a grassroots organization of parents concerned about teacher furloughs, began Wednesday night when nine people, including three students, stayed overnight in the reception area of the governor's office at the state Capitol without access to bathrooms.
With an April 12 legislative deadline to address furloughs in the state budget bill, the group is demanding that Lingle negotiate directly with the teachers union and the Board of Education.
The governor yesterday said "claims by a small group of people who are currently occupying the reception area of my office that I have not been personally involved in such discussions are patently false."
Lingle said she and other administration officials are working daily to find a solution to the furlough situation that is "affordable and fair to the taxpayers of our state."
"Occupying government offices will not create additional revenues to end the school furloughs and impedes the ability of the general public to conduct business with the state," Lingle said in a statement.
Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe yesterday said the group's efforts would be better directed at state lawmakers.
"While we admire the efforts of the parents to get the governor more directly involved in solving the furlough issue, we have reached a point where everything rests on whether or not the Legislature decides to fund the ($92 million) agreement between the Board of Education, which is the employer, and HSTA," Okabe said in a written statement.
"We hope that parents will contact their legislators and encourage them to fund the agreement. That is the next step, at this point in time, to end furlough Fridays. Once the Legislature acts, then the governor will need to make her decision."
Following last week's overwhelming endorsement by HSTA members of the $92 million plan to eliminate the remaining 21 furlough days this year and next, the union said it had no further plans to negotiate with the governor and asked lawmakers to fund the agreement.
Lingle has said the HSTA-BOE plan is too costly, by about $30 million, because it brings back all employees in the public school system. She's proposing bringing back only "essential" employees — mostly teachers and school-level support staff.
The governor has proposed spending $62 million to end the teacher furloughs, but the union said she has not presented her deal to them directly.
"I am continuing to keep the lines of communication open with the DOE and BOE, and I strongly encourage the HSTA to reconsider its stand that it will no longer negotiate to end closing our schools for 21 more days," Lingle said yesterday.
Marguerite Higa, whose daughter attends Noelani Elementary School, said she planned on staying overnight again yesterday.
"We're tired. We're tired of furloughs," she said. "We're going to hold out until Lingle commits to resolving this by April 12. It's entirely possible to do."
State Rep. Lyla Berg, D-18th (Niu Valley-'Āina Haina), vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said she believes the group, more than anything, wants the governor to listen to their concerns and show that she cares.
"They are saying that enough is enough," Berg said yesterday after visiting with the parents. "They feel that she needs to be more accommodating to the proposals coming from the BOE and the HSTA."
Higa said she is upset that the governor has refused to meet with the group.
"No one has talked to us," she said. "She won't even agree to meet with us. So I completely understand when the HSTA says that she refuses to meet with them."
State Rep. Roy Takumi, D-36th (Pearl City), chairman of the House Education Committee, said the governor is the most important player in solving furloughs of public school teachers.
"The Legislature's job is to fund the solution, but right now there is nothing to fund. I hope people realize that, sure, we could carve out dollars for something, but it is ultimately up to the governor," Takumi said.
State Rep. Marcus Oshiro, D-39th (Wahiawā), chairman of the House Finance Committee, said the April 12 deadline applies only to dealing with the four remaining furlough days for this school year. It still leaves room for dealing with furlough days for next year.
"Next school year can be addressed in the hurricane relief bill or in the budget bill. I am hopeful, in that respect. Both the House and the Senate have appropriated money for next year," Oshiro said.
The state on Oct. 23 began a series of teacher furloughs that would cut a total of 34 classroom days this school year and next. So far there have been 13 furlough days out of 17 scheduled for the 2009-10 school year.