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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 25, 2010

Deal or no deal? On furloughs, it's all show

What was that all about?

Tuesday started with news of the bleak prospects for settling the festering dispute over furlough days in public schools. Hours later, amid encouraging fanfare, we have dueling press conferences announcing new plans for getting the schools open.

Gov. Linda Lingle rushed to unveil her proposal. Then the remaining parties in the negotiations the Board of Education and the Hawaii State Teachers Association emerged with theirs.

It looked more like competition than conciliation. Anyway, neither seemed aware of what the other was proposing, so clearly there hasn't been much real negotiation.

Lingle finally has backed off her insistence that teachers sacrifice all of their workshop and class preparation days. But any goodwill from that gesture evaporated when she announced she was holding this offer hostage to a completely unrelated issue.

Lingle's deal is contingent on the Legislature putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot that asks voters to let future governors appoint the state schools superintendent.

Without getting sidetracked into debate over the amendment itself, hijacking a labor settlement to achieve a separate political end is so ham-fisted, obnoxious and pointless that it's hard to believe it came from the ever-so-strategic Lingle team. Nobody could blame the BOE or HSTA for doubting Lingle's resolve to reach any measure of harmony when an overture like this strikes such sour notes.

For their part, the impotent BOE and the imperious HSTA don't offer much reason to hope, either. The teachers finally have given way a tiny bit on their wish to preserve all planning days and now seem willing to deal away six of them to get students back in school this year and next.

But the sticker shock of the final cost of that proposal $92 million is dizzying. That's a radically deep cut into the hurricane relief fund, the source they propose for the money. Such an expense seems all but certain to force a hike in the general excise tax, which will draw down a veto by Lingle that probably can't be overridden.

There are more realistic, more affordable settlements that could be struck. The Advertiser's proposal reflects such a middle-ground approach:

• Forget about the remaining four furlough days in the current year. It's time to move on.

• Focus on reducing next year's furlough days; a cut from 17 to seven would be reasonable. Four of the 10 restored days can come from converting planning days, with the other six bought back, though other formulas could work here, too.

• The union position, that every single employee needs to come back on furlough days, remains extreme. It's tough for unions to reckon with this, but the plain fact is that not everyone is essential, every day.

Should people feel encouraged that the plodding furlough talks have yielded at least a little movement around the edges? Maybe. But it's disgraceful that it's taken this long to achieve even that pitiful progress.