Hawaii governor, teachers in standoff over furloughs
Hours after education officials and Gov. Linda Lingle announced competing proposals to end teacher furloughs in Hawai'i's public schools yesterday, it was already clear that no breakthrough was at hand.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association and the state Board of Education reached a tentative agreement that would restore all of the remaining public school furlough days this school year and next by using $92 million to be appropriated by the Legislature.
Minutes before the HSTA and BOE announced their agreement yesterday, the governor released her proposal: Use $62 million from the state's "rainy-day" and Hurricane Relief funds, but only if lawmakers approve and put before voters her proposed constitutional amendment to abolish the BOE and allow the governor to appoint the superintendent of schools.
The HSTA-BOE tentative agreement addressed the governor's call for teachers to use noninstructional planning days to replace some furlough days. Their agreement would convert six planning days to instructional days.
Meanwhile, the governor offered nearly 25 percent more money from the state's emergency funds than she had been originally inclined to use.
But at the end of the day, the line in the sand separating the two sides remained clearer than ever, with the dueling plans to eliminate furloughs some $30 million apart.
Before the agreement between HSTA and the BOE could be enacted, lawmakers would need to appropriate $92 million. By law, the governor would not need to approve the plan since it is a supplemental agreement to the main HSTA contract.
However, she would need to release the money to fund it. She said yesterday that she would not.
"It's something that the state can't afford. The amounts they are requesting are not necessary to get the children back into the classroom," Lingle said.
She said she was opposed to the HSTA-BOE plan because it would bring back all employees in the public school system rather than just "essential" school-level employees.
"They're bringing back people who are nonessential. They're not necessary, and they know that. So I think they're setting this up to fail from the beginning, and I think that's unfortunate," the governor said. "I think we need to become realistic."
Marguerite Higa, a member of the grassroots parent group Save Our Schools Hawaii, was incredulous over the governor's proposal.
"How can she be serious?" Higa said. "How is that supposed to work? Any rational person would see that it's ridiculous to make a proposal contingent on abolishing the BOE. It's comical. Either the proposal isn't meant to be credible or it's incredibly incompetent. There are no words for this."
Higa called on the governor to demonstrate that she is serious about resolving the issue by sending a representative to negotiate with the HSTA and BOE. She said she is hopeful that the HSTA-BOE proposal will move forward but is "very nervous" about what she sees as Lingle's questionable use of power.
The HSTA-BOE proposal "looks like it might work," Higa said. "The teachers are willing to give up planning days, so that's promising. I hope and pray it will progress. This has been going on for too long and something needs to be done."
UNION VOTE PLANNED
Students have lost 13 instructional days so far this school year because of teacher furloughs. The next furlough day is scheduled for April 23.
HSTA President Wil Oka-be said yesterday that he hoped the governor would be willing to fund the agreement reached with the BOE. He said the agreement represented arduous negotiations between the two parties.
"We worked very hard to secure an agreement to get students back into the classroom, along with the teachers, for every Friday," Okabe said. He added that the governor's office had not proposed her plan to the union.
"We don't have any information about what the governor's proposal is," he said.
On March 31, the HSTA intends to hold a vote to allow its members to show their support for the union plan, even though the agreement does not need to be legally ratified.
State Rep. Marcus Oshiro, D-39th (Wahiawā), chairman of the House Finance Committee , said he believes it is likely that the state Legislature could appropriate the money to pay for the tentative agreement. A bill in the state Senate would have set aside $86 million from the state's Hurricane Relief Fund, and another version in the state House sets aside $50 million.
Oshiro, however, said unless the governor and the union are able to come to a compromise, the Legislature's actions will be for naught.
"Without the governor's endorsement and support, none of these proposals go anywhere," Oshiro said. "If she doesn't (support it), we go back to square one and start all over again."
Under the governor's plan, teachers would return to open up the classrooms and provide instruction. Other "nonessential" Department of Education employees, mostly in the state and district offices, would remain on furlough.
John Penebacker, BOE member and negotiator, said the HSTA-BOE tentative agreement brings back all employees within the DOE for safety issues and compliance with federal requirements.
"We're talking about all of the employees in the system, not just a select few. Our plan is for all employees to come back so that we don't have any potential legal challenges for special education and the rest," Penebacker said.
Okabe said the union was unwilling to categorize some school employees as essential and others as nonessential.
"We believe all the employees of the Department of Education are essential, from the custodians to the cafeteria workers. Teachers who are in resource positions, district office personnel are all essential to the public education system. So that's the agreement we made," Okabe said.
Board of Education Chairman Garrett Toguchi briefed the governor's senior policy adviser, Linda Smith, yesterday morning about the agreement that was reached with the HSTA. Then 30 minutes before the HSTA and BOE held a press conference to announce the agreement, the governor's office announced her plan.
State Rep. Roy Takumi, D-36th (Pearl City, Momilani, Pacific Palisades), chairman of the House Education Committee, said he was disappointed that the governor would try to push her amendment by tying it to the money to eliminate furlough days.
"I am puzzled why the governor in a sense is holding our students hostage and refuses to deal with the furloughs unless she gets her way with the constitutional amendment bill. I would urge her to deal with each issue separately," Takumi said. "There is no connection between ending the furloughs and putting the constitutional amendment on the ballot."
Both the state House and Senate have moved bills that would give voters the opportunity to decide in November whether the state constitution should be amended to allow the governor to appoint the BOE from a pool of candidates selected by an advisory council. Those appointments would need to be approved by the state Senate.
The Legislature has effectively killed the governor's constitutional amendments by not introducing the drafts of her bills.
State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nānākuli, Mākaha), agreed that the governor should not make her release of money to eliminate furloughs contingent on approval of her constitutional amendment.
"I don't think it's proper for the governor to link the passage of anything — a bill or a constitutional amendment — to whether she's going to release money for furloughs," she said.
"Furloughs are furloughs. She has to make a decision whether furloughs are a priority for her and she is willing to do something about it."