Published Online: November 23, 2009

Lawmakers Want Teacher Vote on Hawaii School Reopen Deal

Hawaii's top lawmakers want a vote of approval from teachers before the state puts them back to work and reopens public schools on furlough days.

Both the House and Senate are agreeing to use $50 million in emergency money to help remove Hawaii's distinction as having the shortest school year in the nation.

But House Speaker Calvin Say and Senate President Colleen Hanabusa said they'll only do so if members of the Hawaii State Teachers Association first either ratify a new labor contract or vote in a straw poll showing their support.

"Teachers will have an opportunity to see what they are agreeing on," said Say, D-St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise. "They should look at themselves as professionals rather than just an occupation where they make $40,000 a year plus."

The teachers union objected to the idea of holding a new vote after about 81 percent of teachers voted in favor of the contract calling for the 17 annual furlough days.

"We have never conducted straw polls or test votes. We believe that a true democratic process through ratification is what is legally provided," said HSTA President Wil Okabe.

Any deal would be submitted to the union's negotiations committee for recommendation to the HSTA Board of Directors. The union's position is that rank-and-file teachers would only get to vote again if a new contract needed to be ratified.

Hanabusa said she's heard too many teachers claim they didn't know their September vote for a new labor contract would result in school closures.

"We can't be going down this road thinking we've got consensus only to have them come back and say, 'We didn't understand that,'" said Hanabusa, D-Nanakuli-Makua.

Friday was the fourth day of school closures so far due to furloughs, with three more scheduled by the end of the year.

Rainy day fund money would be used to pay for restoration of about 12 furlough days this school year and next, with the 15 remaining days recovered by converting teacher planning days into regular classroom time.

Say and Hanabusa set an end-of-the-year deadline for the teachers union and state government to reach a deal before the Legislature will meet in special session to hand them the money.

It's up to Gov. Linda Lingle, the Board of Education, the Department of Education and the teachers union to negotiate details of the plan. The Legislature then would vote to pay for it.

The furlough days amounted to an 8 percent teacher pay cut, which would be reduced to a 5 percent cut once the $50 million is used.

"We have a pre-agreement agreement," said Garrett Toguchi, chairman of the Board of Education. "I'm confident that given the fact that the governor is willing to throw some money behind this thing, we're going to end up with something that's more than we have right now."

Lawmakers could return to the Capitol for a five-day special session to appropriate the money. The session would cost about $24,500 for airfares and per diems, according to data provided by the Senate.

If everyone doesn't agree before the end of the year, the Legislature could still tap the rainy day fund next year, but more furlough days will pass the longer they wait.

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