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Published in Print: March 14, 2001, as Hawaii Teachers Plan Strike Vote Over Pay Demands

Hawaii Teachers Plan Strike Vote Over Pay Demands

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Teachers in Hawaii—who say they are long overdue for a raise—are expected to vote this week on whether to strike. If they vote yes, the walkout will probably happen the first week of April, just as many schools are coming back from spring break and beginning the final stretch of the school year.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is demanding a 22 percent raise over four years. Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano, a Democrat, has offered raises ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent over that period, with teachers at the lower end of the salary scale getting the bigger increases.

State leaders argue that they can't go higher because of rising costs associated with a federal consent decree requiring the improvement of services to students with special needs. The decree stems from a 1994 lawsuit, known as Felix v. Cayetano, in which the plaintiffs argued that the state was not adequately serving children with mental-health needs.

"We are open to addressing [the teachers'] concerns," said Davis K. Yogi, the state's chief negotiator. "But we have to wait until we have a real handle on the Felix numbers."

Danielle L. Lum, a spokeswoman for the union, said teachers have been working under the terms of their old contract for more than a year and have not received a raise in two.

No 'Step' Increases

Teachers in the single, statewide school system also don't receive incremental, or "step," raises for an additional year of service, as teachers do in many other states. That's why the size of the raise they are requesting may appear on the high side compared with those granted teachers elsewhere, union officials say.

Ms. Lum added that without a new contract, Hawaii's teachers, who have been in a "cooling-off period" since mid-January, cannot begin implementing several initiatives that the state and the union have agreed on. Those measures include a new teacher-evaluation method and a program of peer review and assistance for teachers.

"We're trying to stabilize the teaching profession," Ms. Lum argued, noting that Hawaii has a teacher shortage and a high turnover rate.

During hearings late last year before a fact- finding panel appointed by the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, the union presented evidence that an average of 35 classrooms are empty every school day because of a lack of teachers, and that 75 classes a day are taught by substitutes.

Greg Knudsen, a spokesman for the Hawaii Department of Education, acknowledged that many teachers will retire in the next few years, and that it is becoming difficult to fill the positions because turnover is highest among the youngest teachers.

"We're continually replacing new teachers," he said.

So far, negotiations have not been able to bring the two sides into agreement, though talks had resumed as of late last week.

In January, the fact-finding panel released its recommendations for a settlement, which were ultimately rejected by both parties.

The panel recommended a 19 percent raise over four years, saying that the state budget is expected to have a surplus this fiscal year and next, even after factoring in the costs of the Felix consent decree.

But in a letter to the labor-relations board, Mr. Yogi, the state negotiator, argued that the surplus "should not be seen as a sign that the state can afford the future cost of pay raises for teachers," and pointed out that the state is legally bound to balance its budget.

'Obvious Failure'

He also wrote that the panel's recommendations showed "an obvious failure on the part of the panel to grasp the complexities of the state budget." It was "unfortunate that the fact- finding process proved to be an exercise that has done little to advance the cause of reaching a just and fair settlement," Mr. Yogi said.

Karen H. Ginoza, the president of the teachers' union, praised most of the conclusions of the fact-finding report, but said that the panel offered nothing to reward teachers with the most experience—those with more than 30 years in the classroom.

In 1997, the union came within an hour of striking, but a last- minute agreement was reached. The last strike, which lasted for two weeks, was in 1973.

Ms. Lum said she expected this week's vote to be in favor of a strike. "Our teachers are angry," she said. "They are frustrated, and they are ready to take action."

And scheduling a walkout during early April would have the maximum impact on the state's roughly 184,000 public school students. While Hawaii has a lot of schools on modified schedules, all schools will be in session at that time.

Mr. Yogi said that the state was still open to suggestions, such as those that might come from the legislature.

Vol. 20, Issue 26, Pages 18,25

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