Hawaii teacher furloughs remain as school year starts running out
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
With 11 instructional days already lost to teacher furloughs and just six remaining, time has all but run out on potential furlough solutions this school year, though education officials, the governor's office and the teachers union say they are not giving up.
Negotiators from the state Board of Education may meet with the Hawaii State Teachers Association as soon as this week to finally present Gov. Linda Lingle's most recent $50 million furlough reduction proposal more than five weeks since it was announced.
However, the chairman of the BOE says the decision to present the proposal to the HSTA does not amount to an endorsement of the offer. And officials with the teachers union already say the governor's proposal has barely changed since she first proposed it in November — and the union was unwilling to accept it then.
Lawmakers are simultaneously moving forward on legislation that could give the state Department of Education additional money to deal with furloughs for the current school year and next.
But some say that time has run out to salvage any additional class days this school year.
"If we go through the regular (legislative) process, wait until the end of April and pass out the budget with dollars for furloughs, that would only take effect for next year. By the time the bill is signed and implemented, it's June; the school year is ended," said state Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House Committee on Education.
"The only way we could resolve furloughs for this year is from an action that has to come from the Office of the Governor. It's highly unlikely," said Takumi, (D-36th, Pearl City, Momilani, Pacific Palisades).
A total of 23 furlough Fridays remain in the most recent two-year contract with the teachers union, six of those days in the current school year. The next furlough Friday is scheduled for March 5.
2 PLANS REJECTED
Two formal proposals to end or reduce teacher furlough days have come and gone — one rejected by the HSTA and one by Lingle — since the unpaid days off were instituted Oct. 23 to help close the state's unprecedented budget deficit.
A third formal proposal was announced by the governor on Jan. 8, but it has not yet been presented to the teachers union. The governor has accused the BOE of attempting to "stonewall" her plan, though BOE members said they have been waiting for the governor to respond to their concerns and questions.
The governor's office said she has done that.
"The governor (spoke) with several of them and discussed some of the concerns they had raised about her most recent proposal. We believe that we answered those questions satisfactorily and we encouraged them to join with us in making the proposal formally to the HSTA," said Linda Smith, the governor's senior policy adviser.
Smith said she believed that the governor's proposal, which would use a combination of $50 million from the state's rainy-day fund and teacher planning days to end 23 furlough days over two years, would be the best way to deal with furlough days this year.
"We want the kids back in the classroom," Smith said. "This is a very simple matter that could be resolved quickly. All we need is the board to agree with us and take the proposal to the HSTA and let them vote on it."
Board of Education Chairman Garrett Toguchi said the board will schedule a meeting with the HSTA soon, perhaps this week, to discuss the governor's proposal. But To-guchi said that is not an indication that the BOE is "on board" with the governor's proposal.
"I think we agree with her goal. There's no question that the goal of getting all days back is common. We want to see how far we can get (with the HSTA). We have to negotiate," Toguchi said.
While the teachers union has not received the governor's proposal officially, HSTA president Wil Okabe said the plan resembles the governor's original November plan, and they are concerned that the rainy-day money will not be enough to pay for all the remaining furlough days.
The governor's original proposal would have used the $50 million to cover only the salaries for "essential" teachers and would have excluded several categories of instructors, including resource teachers and librarians.
"She's been saying the same thing for how long now. It's not a compromising situation, is it?" Okabe said. "It's not acceptable for us to pit teachers against one another in terms of essential and nonessential."
The teachers union and the Board of Education have also expressed concerns that the governor's plan would not fund the salaries for all school-level employees to return to work, including security guards, health aides, cafeteria workers and others.
SHORT $19.3 MILLION
Union and education officials had estimated the DOE would face a $19.3 million budget shortfall under the governor's plan. That's even if teachers swap their planning days, without additional pay, as the governor is still suggesting.
Education officials warn- ed that the $19.3 million shortage would result in layoffs of 2,500 full-time employees, increased class sizes and loss of school-level programs.
Takumi said the signatories to the teachers' contract — the BOE, DOE, the governor, and the HSTA — coming to agreement is key to solving the furlough crisis. But so far efforts to establish common ground have been fruitless.
"It sounds as if they are still very far apart. People are blaming and pointing fingers and all the rest. I'm not optimistic," Takumi said.
Several bills are making their way through the state Legislature, including some that would use the state's hurricane relief fund or possibly raise the general excise tax. Most of the measures seek to fund any potential agreement between the state and the HSTA.
State Sen. Norman Sakamoto, (D-15th, Waimalu, Airport, Salt Lake), chairman of the state Senate's Committee on Education and Housing, said those efforts by the Legislature will need the support of the governor if they are going to help solve the problem.
"We're trying to do our part in identifying the source of money. It has to be with the governor's agreement. In no way is it in spite of. I'm still hopeful that the governor will agree," Sakamoto said.