Published Online: October 30, 2009
Published in Print: November 4, 2009, as Hawaii Copes With Disruption From School Furloughs

Hawaii Copes With Disruption From School Furloughs

Amid apprehension, anger, and confusion, “Furlough Fridays” have begun in Hawaii. And no one appears particularly set on keeping them around.

Not Gov. Linda Lingle, who, in the face of statewide protests, said she regretted approving the contract that calls for teachers to take 17 unpaid days off this school year and 17 again next year to help plug a $1.1 billion state budget deficit. ("Hawaii Braces for Educational Impact of Furloughs," Sept. 30, 2009.)

Nor lawmakers and teachers’ union officials, who have called for a legislative solution to end the closures via either a special session or a measure to be approved when the legislature convenes in January.

Nor parents, who in two cases have filed lawsuits, and in general have appeared hesitant to send their younger children to specially set-up child-care programs as schools were closed for the first time on Oct. 23.

Protesters demonstrate against school furloughs at an Oct. 23 rally at the state Capitol in Honolulu.
—Deborah Booker/The Honolulu Advertiser/AP

The second furlough day was scheduled today for the 171,000 non-charter-school students in Hawaii’s statewide public school system. At 163 days, which equates to roughly one Friday closure every two weeks, their school calendar is the shortest in the nation.

Furloughs have been enacted statewide in Georgia, and in individual districts in California, Florida, New Mexico, and South Carolina, but none of the same scale as Hawaii’s 17-day cutback.

“I think because this has never happened really, anywhere, we just didn’t know what to expect,” said Susan Nakamura, the director of marketing and communications for the YMCA in Honolulu, which is offering special child-care services to elementary-school-age children on furlough days.

Bypassing Alternatives

Only 300 students were enrolled on the first furlough day at seven YMCA branches across the island of Oahu, Ms. Nakamura said. If furloughs continue, 600 to 700 students per Friday could be possible, she said.

Other child-care agencies reported similar observations, according to the state department of education.

“The low number was really an indication of cost, panic, anxiety,” said Ms. Nakamura. In a state with a high cost of living and a large number of extended families, she added, parents may instead leave children with relatives.

On the first furlough day, some parents and caregivers assembled their own programs to avoid day-care costs that ran from about $25 to upward of $50 a day.

In the Honolulu suburb of Kaimuki, 54 kindergarten through 5th grade students attended the first day of a PTA Furlough Friday Learning Opportunities Program at Liholiho Elementary School.

“It’s more of a practical application of the skills they’ve already learned,” said PTA-hired school director Jodi Yoshimura. “It was a lot of fun, but quite tiring.”

The YMCA’s programs are, for now, only scheduled until December, in hopes that the furloughs may be halted. Ms. Nakamura said teachers told her 7-year-old daughter to watch television the night before furloughs began in case schools were suddenly ordered to remain open.

But state schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto confirmed the school closures in a video on the department of education’s Web home page.

“The department will be better able to gauge the public’s understanding following the fourth or fifth furlough day,” department spokesman Sandra Goya said in an e-mail.

Legal Challenges

On Oct. 22, a federal judge blocked a request for a temporary restraining order to halt furloughs before they started.

But U.S. District Judge David Ezra stressed he was bowing to practical considerations and not ruling on the merits of separate lawsuits filed by two sets of parents. He set a hearing for Nov. 5 on the parents’ request for a preliminary injunction.

“I do believe we have a train going down the tracks and, like most trains, it takes time to stop,” the judge said.

One lawsuit was dealt a blow when the Western Association of Schools and Colleges confirmed Monday it does not set a minimum number of school days. The suit claimed the accreditation association required at least 175.

The other suit, filed by parents of students with special needs, was amended to call for a public hearing on the furloughs.

Gov. Lingle, the state school board, and the state teachers’ union have tried to distance themselves from the unpopular move.

After hundreds of parents rallied at the Capitol on the first Furlough Friday, Gov. Lingle, a Republican, said she regretted having agreed to the new labor contract that instituted the teacher furloughs.

At a press conference, Ms. Lingle said she had “assumed” the state education department, the school board, and the Hawaii State Teachers Association would draft a contract in students’ best interest.

“I don’t think they did,” the governor said. “I think it was in the best interest of getting the contract resolved, and we were all focused on that, myself included.”

Will Okabe, the president of the HSTA, issued a statement accusing Gov. Lingle of trying to pass off blame.

Ms. Lingle’s remarks also drew a rebuke from Garrett Toguchi, the chairman of the school board.

“She agreed to the contract. We couldn’t have moved ahead without it,” he said. “For her to talk stink about the contract now is not professional.”

The Associated Press and the McClatchy News Service contributed to this story.

Vol. 29, Issue 10, Pages 17-18

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