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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hawaii governorís furlough plan derided

Advertiser Staff

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Gov. Linda Lingle

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Gov. Linda Lingle's suggestion that teachers voluntarily return to classrooms to end the last three furlough Fridays this year landed with a thud yesterday.

The head of the teachers union said it would be illegal, while the chairman of the Board of Education questioned Lingle's understanding of how schools work.

"To assume you can operate on a voluntary basis is ridiculous," said BOE Chairman Garrett Toguchi. "It's troublesome to hear that statement from the governor. I would presume she understands school operations more than that. To make a statement where you're encouraging people to come back voluntarily is haphazard and reckless."

Lingle on Sunday asked public school teachers and principals to return to the classrooms without pay for the remaining three furlough days of the school year as "a gesture to heal our community." The next furlough day is this Friday, followed by furloughs on May 7 and 14.

Teachers cannot legally return to work on a voluntary basis because it would violate an agreement between the union and the BOE, according to Wil Okabe, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

Okabe said the governor's latest statement is creating confusion about whether the furlough situation has been resolved.

"Furlough days scheduled for this year will continue. The Legislature sent that message when they approved money that only looked at next year," Okabe said.

Lawmakers are moving forward with a bill that would approve using $67 million from the state Hurricane Relief Fund to end furloughs for the 2010-2011 school year.

Instead of calling for teachers to volunteer, Lingle could release money to eliminate the remaining furlough Fridays, said Toguchi, the BOE chairman.

The BOE estimates it costs $6.1 million a day to run the public school system.

Also, federal wage and hour laws prohibit certain employees from working without pay, Toguchi said. They include personnel such as custodians, cafeteria workers and office staff.

"Persons in schools who are nonexempt would be entitled to getting paid for the time worked, even if they called it volunteering," he said.

Toguchi said one of his main concerns is the health and safety of schoolchildren, because not all employees would be obligated to show up on voluntary days.

Okabe, the union leader, said the legislators could have ended furlough Fridays this year if they funded school operations.

"If the Legislature wanted to solve (this year's furloughs), they would have funded the $92 million," Okabe said. "But it's clear when they appropriated $67 million that it is only for next year."

The BOE and the HSTA reached an agreement earlier this month based on using $92 million in state funding to end what was then four remaining furlough days this year and 17 days next year. About $67 million of that plan would be spent to eliminate furloughs for next year.

Lingle has said the HSTA-BOE plan is too costly, by about $30 million, because it brings back all the public school system's employees rather than only "essential" employees ó mostly teachers and school-level support staff.

By law, supplemental agreements can be reached only between the union and the BOE. While Lingle's approval is not needed for the agreement, she does have authority over the release of state money to implement the plan.

Lingle has said she intends to release only up to $57.2 million of the $67 million the Legislature plans to approve.