Published Online: March 31, 2010

Hawaii Teachers to Vote on School Furlough Deal

Efforts to end the nation's shortest school year will culminate Wednesday with a vote by Hawaii public school teachers on a proposed deal.

But even if the state's 13,500 teachers approve the $92 million agreement, it wouldn't necessarily put students back in class. Gov. Linda Lingle has said she wouldn't spend that much money because it's too expensive to taxpayers.

"Who's going to be the adult in the room and say, 'Enough is enough?'" asked Ann Davis, president of the parent group Hawaii Education Matters. "What this does is put the ball back in the governor's court. How much is she willing to budge?"

The deal would restore more than half of the 8 percent pay cut teachers accepted when they ratified a contract in October calling for 17 furlough days this school year and next. The furloughs helped balance the state's budget.

Those days off reduced Hawaii's school year to 163 days, the fewest in the nation.

The deal between the teachers union and the Board of Education doesn't require the governor's approval, but she could neuter it because she has the power to withhold its funding.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association and Lingle are $30 million apart in their proposals.

Lingle said Wednesday she hopes a solution can be reached even after the teachers' vote.

"We have to live within our means. We only have so much money," she said. "It's premature at this time to take a hard position. Let's just see what the Legislature does."

State lawmakers are considering several proposals that would pay for the deal. One measure expected to get a vote Wednesday would pay for most of it by spending $82 million from a hurricane relief fund.

If the teachers don't approve the deal, Hawaii would be stuck with the shortened school year.

"This is the last chance for everyone for a negotiated solution," said Wil Okabe, the teachers union's president. "If the teachers don't support this agreement as the board hoped they would, the teachers have spoken. They will continue to work under the contract now in place, which will continue the furloughs."

On the other hand, if teachers support the agreement, the Board of Education would work to find ways to reopen schools even without Lingle's support, said BOE Chairman Garrett Toguchi.

One proposal being discussed would rework next year's public school calendar so that the furlough days would fall in the second half of the school year, after Lingle leaves office, he said. Then the next governor could choose to spend the money and students would attend a full slate of days.

"We're not about to give up on getting kids back in the classroom," Toguchi said. "The sticking point is with the governor. Fortunately, she's not going to be in office for the whole year."

The union and school board's proposal would reopen schools on the remaining four furlough days this school year and 17 furlough days next school year. Teachers would hold class on six of their planning days.

Lingle's proposal would cost $62 million and also reopen schools on the remaining 21 furlough days. Under her plan, teachers would hold class on nine of their planning days and non-essential workers would remain furloughed.

Lingle also has warned she wouldn't spend the money unless lawmakers let voters decide on a constitutional amendment allowing the next governor to appoint the school superintendent. State legislators are not advancing that idea. Instead, they want a constitutional amendment allowing the next governor to appoint the Board of Education.

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