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Hawaii Lawmakers OK Funding to Restore School Days

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Hawaii lawmakers voted late Friday night to set aside enough money to reopen schools on all of next year's scheduled furlough days, ending the nation's shortest school year if the governor agrees.

A conference committee voted unanimously on a measure to spend $67 million from a hurricane relief fund — the first time money has been allocated to stop the teacher furlough days that have already kept students out of class for 14 days this school year.

The Legislature's action puts pressure on Gov. Linda Lingle to agree to spend the money and send more than 170,000 public school students back to class on 17 planned teacher furlough days next school year.

"The kids can't afford any more days off," said Marguerite Higa, a parent who was arrested during a weeklong sit-in at the governor's office this month. "We want to see the governor apply the money as soon as possible."

The money would directly pay to restore 11 teacher furlough days, and teachers have agreed to give up six of their planning days.

Hawaii cut school days to 163 a year to help the state reduce its budget deficit. Most states have 180 school days.

"We hope to restore public education as it once was," said Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe. "The Legislature has sent a clear message. Let's be optimistic and hope the governor will go along with it."

While the $67 million allocation would help restore 17 furlough days, it falls short of the $86 million that would be needed to bring children back to school on the remaining three furlough days this school year as well.

"Here are some dollars to end the furloughs, and we'll be pleading with the parties to get back together and come to a resolution," said House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Roy Takumi, D-Pearl City-Pacific Palisades.

Lingle was not available for comment after the late Friday vote.

The money could be used under an agreement between their labor union and the Board of Education that teachers approved in a vote last month. The money would go toward restoring teacher pay, which was cut by 8 percent along with the school year through a union contract ratified in October.

The teachers approved a $92 million plan covering 21 furlough days. This $67 million pays the same rate per day for 17 days instead. The teachers' agreement allows for that flexibility.

The Republican governor has said the union and Board of Education deal was too expensive because it brought back all education employees, including those she considered not to be essential. She had proposed a scaled-down $62 million plan.

A separate bill that passed conference committee earlier Friday would prevent the state from cutting school days like they did this school year.

That measure requires a minimum of 180 school days starting in the 2011-2012 school year and gradually ramps up the required number of annual instructional hours. It also asks the state and labor union to write a proposal to eventually increase the minimum number of instructional days to 190.

Both measures will receive final votes in the House and Senate next week.

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