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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 26, 2010

Hawaii governor asks teachers to return

by Suzanne Roig
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Gov. Linda Lingle

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Gov. Linda Lingle last night asked all public school teachers and principals to volunteer to return to the classrooms without pay for the remaining three furlough days of the school year as a "gesture to heal our community."

And if lawmakers approve a plan on Wednesday, Lingle also said she will release up to $57.2 million from the state's Hurricane Relief Fund to restore 11 teacher furlough days next year.

Parents and members of the grassroots organization Save Our Schools praised Lingle's proposal last night and hoped that she could tap into federal stimulus funds or release restricted Department of Education money to fund two of the remaining three days this year.

Teachers already had agreed to give back one day at the end of this school year.

"We're thrilled she supports returning the children to school this year," said Marguerite Higa, of Save Our Schools. "We're very glad she wants to get the kids back to school this year and next. We're excited and hopeful that this will be a win-win for everyone."

But Board of Education Chairman Garrett Toguchi said Lingle's proposal gives parents a false sense of hope that all teachers will return to the classroom to work for free this school year.

"A school operation isn't a voluntary activity," Toguchi said. "You can't rely on people's choice if they want to come to work."

If not all teachers show up to work for free, Toguchi feared that some children could be in classrooms with no teachers or supervisors.

On Friday, lawmakers agreed to take $67 million from the state's Hurricane Relief Fund to eliminate next year's furlough days if Lingle and educators can strike a deal.

But the money won't be released until July 1, well after this school year is completed, Lingle said last night.

The measure requires final approval by the full House and Senate, which is scheduled to vote on Wednesday.

"In the spirit of recognizing that each school knows what is best for their students, I am encouraging schools to make the decision on what personnel they need or do not need to reopen their campuses," Lingle said in a statement. "I have met teachers, principals and education officials who tell me they want to return to the classroom. This is encouraging.

"I therefore am calling upon teachers and principals to voluntarily agree to come back for the remaining three days this school year. This would be a welcome and significant gesture to heal our community."

If the Legislature agrees to take $67 million from the state's Hurricane Relief Fund, Lingle would need only $57.2 million to eliminate the 11 teacher furlough days scheduled for next year.

The remaining $9.8 million would be returned to the fund, Lingle said.

It is estimated that about $6.1 million a day is needed to run Hawai'i's public schools, including employees and operating expenses such as electricity, water and bus transportation.

Lingle said she would leave it up to individual schools to decide which employees are "essential" to running their campuses.

Toguchi said Lingle's plan shows a basic lack of understanding of how Hawai'i's schools operate. Every employee is necessary to running a school, Toguchi said.

"It puts the state in a potentially liable situation when teachers come back to school without security guards, custodians or cafeteria workers," Toguchi said. "Under the agreement (to return without pay for one of the three remaining furlough days), the teachers agreed with the understanding that all workers would return. This creates health and safety issues if schools decide not to bring in all personnel."

The Board of Education and the Hawaii State Teachers Association earlier had agreed to restoring 11 days next year and giving back six teacher days to instruction with all school personnel coming to work.

Hawai'i made national news when a group of parents began a sit-in at the governor's office in protest of the teacher furlough days. Four people, including Higa, were arrested on suspicion of trespassing during the eight day sit-in.

The sit-in ended without the governor agreeing to meet with the group.

"Healing is exactly what this community needs," Higa said, "and we are so grateful that Lingle is taking the lead."