Hawaii school board may cancel next year's furlough days
A political stalemate blocked efforts to restore furlough days to this year's public school calendar in Hawai'i, but the Board of Education may not have to rely on Gov. Linda Lingle's largesse next year.
The BOE has the option of lifting the 17 furlough Fridays from next year's school calendar in hopes that Lingle — or the next elected governor — would release the money to pay for the restored instructional days.
But that would mean taking a risk.
"The question is, do we take the chance and within our budget we restore the days with the hope we get the money?" BOE Chairman Garrett Toguchi said.
If the board takes that action and Lingle or the next governor does not release money for furlough days, Toguchi said that would leave the public school system's budget short, requiring all 17 days to be implemented in the latter part of the year.
The first furlough day next school year is scheduled for Aug. 27.
Today is the final furlough day this year for Hawai'i's public schools, marking the end of more than nine months of consternation and numerous unsuccessful plans and agreements to eliminate the school year's 17 furlough Fridays since they were agreed to last September and implemented a month later.
The furlough days resulted in Hawai'i having the shortest school year in the nation.
A decision by lawmakers during the legislative session to set aside $67 million from the state's Hurricane Relief Fund to eliminate next school year's furlough days theoretically ends the remaining 17 furlough Fridays in the teachers union contract. But the bill must still earn Lingle's approval, and she or the next governor will need to release the money to officially restore the furlough days.
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Toguchi has urged Lingle to release the $67 million. While the governor has indicated she would be willing to release up to $57 million to restore 11 of 17 furlough days, she has until July 6 to make a final decision on Senate Bill 2124.
Toguchi noted that the supplemental agreement reached between the BOE and the Hawaii State Teachers Association would restore 17 furlough days through a combination of $67 million and teachers giving up six planning days.
"If she doesn't intend to veto the bill, but hasn't made it clear if she is going to release the money, then the options are that we can implement the agreement, but part of it is a gamble," Toguchi said.
Lingle spokesman Russell Pang said the governor is holding to her position of spending $57 million to restore some furlough days, and that talks continue with the Department of Education.
As public school principals wrap up the current school year, they're being told to plan for next year as if furlough days will continue, Toguchi said.
Ruth Silberstein, principal of Pālolo Elementary, said the school is planning next school year to mimic the current year. To reduce the effects of furloughs, the school had moved its short Wednesday schedule to Friday. Teachers also agreed among themselves to teach an extra hour each day after school to make up for the lost instructional time.
"We're planning as if furlough days will continue, but we're hoping that they don't," Silberstein said.
By rearranging the school's weekly schedule, students were actually missing only 45 minutes of instruction time on weeks when a furlough Friday occurred, she said.
"Until the furlough days are actually eliminated, we have to continue doing what we're doing," Silberstein said.
The top three gubernatorial candidates have all expressed commitments to eliminating furlough Fridays.
Last week, Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, said he believed Lingle would release $57.2 million of the $67 million appropriated by the Legislature.
"With the funding appropriated by the state Legislature, and the HSTA's willingness to allow children to return to class on six noninstructional days, we have the resources to achieve a comprehensive solution to end teacher furloughs," Aiona said in a news release on May 4.
Former Congressman Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, said he would implement the supplemental agreement between the BOE and HSTA, including releasing all the money necessary to fund it.
"We need to look beyond furlough Fridays. Restoring instructional days will get us back to where we started," Abercrombie said in a written statement.
"Furlough Fridays would have never happened if I were governor. If I had been governor, I would have gotten all parties together and met continuously until we reached a solution to ensure that we put the interests of Hawai'i's children first. Instructional days are central to that mission," he said.
Dean Okimoto, chairman of the Mufi Hannemann Exploratory Committee, said Hannemann's commitment would be to ensure public school furloughs are eliminated. The Honolulu mayor, a Democrat, has not yet officially announced his candidacy for governor.
"There would be no furlough Fridays in a Hannemann administration," Okimoto said. "Public education is a priority and there would be no furlough Fridays."