Averting Strike, Hawaii Teachers Agree on Contract

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Just minutes before a strike deadline last week, the Hawaii teachers' union and state officials shook hands on a contract that raises salaries 17 percent over the next 2 1/2 years and lengthens the school calendar.

At 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 20, a half-hour before the strike was to begin, groggy but angry teachers were gathering at their schools with picket signs and thermoses of coffee. Through cellular phones and beepers, the news spread that an agreement had been reached.

"It's quite a relief," said Curtis Young, an elementary school principal who was at home with his wife, Carol, a teacher, when they heard the news on television.

School had already been canceled that day for the 183,000 students in the single statewide school system, however, because no settlement had been reached the night before.

After the agreement was reached, administrators and staff members were asked to report to work, but Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano granted teachers leave for the day.

The agreement on a four-year contract allowed negotiators on both sides to claim victory after a week of 12-hour workdays that at one point left the parties $50 million apart.

'Labor Peace'

The 12,000-member Hawaii State Teachers Association, which had gone nearly two years without a contract, touted the pay hike that will raise the average salary from $35,000 to $42,000 by July 1999.

The union says teacher salaries in Hawaii are the lowest in the United States when adjusted for cost of living.

"I'm very pleased with what is a solid agreement," said Joan Husted, the chief negotiator for the National Education Association affiliate. "We're going to have labor peace, and now teachers can get back to what they love--educating children."

Gov. Cayetano hailed the addition of seven days to the school calendar, which will begin in the 1998-99 academic year.

He has said the current 176-day schedule, one of the shortest in the nation, shortchanges Hawaii's children.

"The settlement allows us to make a significant step in Hawaii's educational system, and removes us from the bottom of the list in terms of the length of the school year," said Randy Obata, the governor's director of communications.

The Democratic governor will abandon proposed tax breaks for first-time home buyers, professionals doing business overseas, and college students so that the state budget can accommodate the pay raises, Mr. Obata said.

He noted that the governor had advocated the tax deductions to stimulate Hawaii's economy, which has lagged in recent years because of a drop in the all-important tourist industry.

The new contract also will allow teachers to spend their planning periods at home before or after school, and gives them five days of paid leave for personal reasons or professional development. They are expected to vote on the contract this week.

Negotiations on the contract began in January 1995. A few weeks ago, Gov. Cayetano asked his chief of staff, Charles Toguchi, to step in as his chief negotiator because of Mr. Toguchi's past membership in the teachers' union.

In fact, Mr. Toguchi, in 1973, helped lead the 26-year-old union's only strike. Since then, the union has threatened a strike only once, in 1984, but a settlement was reached at the last minute.

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