With public anger rising over teacher furloughs in Hawaii, two of the four expected candidates for governor next year offered ways on Tuesday that the controversial moneysaving program could be halted or reduced.
Neil Abercrombie, the 10-term Democratic U.S. House member representing most of Honolulu, told The Associated Press in an interview that a recently signed labor contract for teachers could be reopened. The new agreement calls on teachers to take 17 unpaid days off in the current school year and 17 days in the next school year.
Federal economic stimulus money also could be redirected to help eliminate or reduce the furloughs even if the Legislature and the governor have already accounted for those dollars in the state budget, Abercrombie added.
“Well then, get together and unaccount for it,” he said, adding that parents are uninterested in the limitations of the state budget process. “The plain fact is that they are going to have to find money ... or reallocate funds with the premise that you keep the schools open.”
Republican attorney John Carroll said he would reduce staffing in the top echelons of the state Department of Education, which he insisted would free enough money to eliminate some or all of the remaining teacher furloughs.
“Layoffs would come in the office of the superintendent (of education) and the assistant superintendent,” Carroll, a former state legislator, said in a separate interview with the AP. “I certainly would not be cutting teacher pay (or) furloughing teachers.”
The first teacher furlough day was last Friday and will continue on nearly every subsequent Friday through mid-May. They are intended to help the state address a budget shortfall estimated at $1 billion or more over the next 20 months.
Of the four likely contenders, Abercrombie has been the most vocal recently as several parents filed two federal lawsuits in a bid to halt the furloughs and hundreds of furlough opponents rallied outside the state Capitol.
A week ago, he declared Hawaii schools to be in “an acute education crisis,” adding that furloughs would “rob” 17 days from children’s school year.
On Tuesday, Abercrombie said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was continuing to look federal money that can be used to retain a full school year in Hawaii.
In the meantime, the congressman said Gov. Linda Lingle, the Hawaii State Teachers Association and Department of Education and state Board of Education should stop finger-pointing and settle on a solution that halts furloughs.
Among the ideas he’s heard discussed are extending the school day and bundling furlough days at the end of the school year, Abercrombie said.
“It’s clear to me that everybody would like to restart this decision,” he said, noting that Lingle last week expressed regret for signing off on the new teacher contract.
Some school board members are meeting with unidentified “state officials” to work out a solution, said school board spokesman Alex Da Silva. Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto is not currently engaged in talks, said spokeswoman Sandra Goya.
Linda Smith, a top Lingle adviser, said she is unaware of any federal stimulus money for Hawaii that is not already budgeted for specific purposes.
“If there is something that Congressman Abercrombie knows about that hasn’t been brought to our attention by the U.S. Department of Education, we’d welcome knowing what pot of money that is,” she said.
Carroll said he has long believed the state’s centralized school bureaucracy should be reduced. “The state-run system has been a total failure,” he said.
On the immediate issue of teacher furloughs, Carroll said he would invoke a Hawaii law that allows a governor to lay off state employees due to a “lack of work or other legitimate reason.” He acknowledged that might run afoul of constitutionally mandatedated independence of the school board and Department of Education.
Two other likely candidates, Republican Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona and Democratic Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, declined requests to be interviewed on teacher furloughs.
A brief statement from Aiona said the school board, Department of Education and the teachers union “have the ability” to restore instructional days if they so choose.
Abercrombie, Aiona and Carroll have said they intend to seek the governor’s office next year. Hannemann has not, though his 2010 campaign committee had almost $1.2 million on hand as of June 30. Candidates can file nomination papers starting Feb. 1.
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