Hawaii parents continue push to end school furloughs, praise sit-in
By HERBERT A. SAMPLE
HONOLULU — After a week of conducting a sit-in at Gov. Linda Lingle's office to protest the nation's shortest school year, parents ended their demonstration but vowed Thursday to continue seeking an end to teacher furloughs.
"We feel like we did what we set out to do," Vernadette Gonzalez, a parent who was one of 29 protesters cited at least once for simple trespassing, said Thursday. "More people are more aware of exactly what's happening ... and how it's really the students of Hawaii who are paying the biggest price."
The parents' civil disobedience in Lingle's office lobby that began April 7 and ended late Wednesday night added an unexpected element to the months of private negotiations and public posturing over furloughs by the governor, legislators, and school and labor union officials.
Into that mix stepped Save Our Schools, an ad hoc parents group that was formed last fall when the furloughs were instituted.
Its members collectively knew little about either the fine details of the furlough controversy or organizing demonstrations. That showed as they juggled the logistics of overnight sit-ins, a Sunday rally at the Capitol, jobs, family duties and media relations.
But the parents were not entirely clueless either: They used Internet social media to keep supporters informed and camped in a corner of the lobby where the smiling portrait of their nemesis was displayed on an easel.
They also had anger and frustration. More than once they said they didn't care who was responsible for this part of the furlough mess or that part, they just wanted it ended.
Lingle — in curtly worded statements that called the parents disrespectful, misguided and misdirected — tried to deflect their energies toward the 13,500-member Hawaii State Teachers Association, the state Department of Education and the state school board.
"Regardless of how many days you occupy these offices, it doesn't create any more money whatsoever and it doesn't do anything to get the union off their position that they have stopped negotiating," Lingle said Tuesday at a news conference.
But the parents were unmoved, explaining in their own barbed comments Wednesday that they are the governor's constituents, not the union's. Moreover, conducting one sit-in was challenging enough, much less two concurrent protests, said Gonzalez, the mother of a 5-year-old daughter.
Besides, said Marguerite Higa, a sit-in organizer, the union and education officials have already met with Save Our Schools members more than once.
"They listened to us and they took their lumps and they've modified their position as a result of meeting with us," Higa, one of four arrested for misdemeanor trespassing during the sit-in, said Thursday. "We felt that that was a start, but what needed to be completed was the governor's willingness to engage in dialogue."
The group now plans to ally with other organizations concerned about budget cuts to public services, Higa said. They also vowed to continue prodding Lingle, lawmakers and other parties to at least end the 17 furlough days planned for the school year that begins in September, if not the four remaining this month and next.
And they want the three major gubernatorial candidates to explain how they would eliminate the furloughs, though the next governor will not take office until December.
After a week of protests, the furloughs remain in force and Hawaii's 179,000 students and their parents still must find something else to do on those days.
But even in an island culture where civil disobedience is frowned upon, the sit-in raised the awareness level among Hawaii residents about the furloughs, the parents insisted.
"One of the big problems in Hawaii is that everybody is upset but people feel powerless," said Higa, the mother of a young daughter. "So I feel that we've showed people that we're not powerless."