Published Online: November 17, 2009

Hawaii Leaders Working to Reopen Schools

Hawaii's leaders are finally agreeing on a way to end the state's cut in school days to the lowest in the nation, but it probably won't happen before students lose several more instructional days.

Putting the plan into action may come slowly while schools are scheduled to close four more days before the end of the year, in addition to the three days already lost. And restoring school days is no guarantee because it requires a new teacher union contract and approval by state lawmakers.

Hawaii's labor contract with unionized teachers calls for 17 days off this school year and next, reducing the state's number of annual instructional days to the lowest in the nation at 163.

Speaker of the House Calvin Say said Monday he has the votes needed to take $50 million from the state's Rainy Day Fund to help recover school days, but he doesn't want to do so until the Hawaii State Teachers Association reworks its contract eliminating the furlough days and converting teacher-planning days into regular classroom time.

"We are the state with the least number of instruction days, and I don't believe any of us wanted to be put in that situation," said Say, D-St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise. "So it became a priority for all of the members in determining where the funds would come from."

The head of the 13,000-teacher labor union also backs Republican Gov. Linda Lingle's plan to use most of the $60 million Rainy Day Fund, a proposal she announced Sunday.

"The governor's proposal represents the kind of viable option we said would be necessary for us to return to the negotiating table," said HSTA President Wil Okabe. "HSTA is committed to finding a solution for resolving the problem of furloughs."

Despite the encouraging words, there was no movement Monday because Lingle was attending the annual conference of the Republican Governors Association in Texas through Thursday.

HSTA officials said they hadn't been contacted by Lingle, the Board of Education or Department of Education to discuss new negotiations. The state House and Senate will discuss the governor's plan this week, but they haven't crafted legislation to use the Rainy Day Fund, which is paid into by tobacco lawsuit settlement money.

Both Lingle and Say are open to the idea of holding an emergency legislative session at the Capitol, but they may wait until they meet in regular session in January, depending on how quickly negotiations happen.

"If people are committed to finding a compromise, consensus solution, this is it," Lingle said Sunday. "It is possible. Both components of this plan are possible. It's up to the parties to agree to them."

Separately Monday, attorney Eric Seitz said he's willing to dismiss his lawsuit over teacher furloughs as part of a settlement. A federal judge ruled against his effort to halt the furloughs last week, and Seitz said he won't appeal the case while the parties attempt to restore school days.

A second lawsuit, representing special education students opposed to the school closures, was appealed with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week, said attorney Susan Dorsey.

"Each furlough days adds to that irreparable injury," Dorsey said. "These kids need to be in school."

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