GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Schoolteachers passed by as Denise Apuna hugged Roger Takabayashi, the union president, outside the Farrington High School Library during yesterday's HSTA contract vote. CLICK FOR LARGE
HSTA contract vote is too close to call
Instructors are OK with pay raises but not with pop quizzes for substance abuse
Hawaii's public school teachers will know on Wednesday whether a majority has approved a contract that includes random drug testing.
About 60 percent of the 13,000 employees in the Hawaii State Teachers Association voted yesterday afternoon in various polling places, said Executive Director Joan Husted, but those results were "inconclusive." HSTA had planned to announce the results last night; however, they are waiting for about 1,900 absentee votes that could determine whether the contract is ratified.
"We didn't expect this, but I think it illustrates how controversial the random drug testing is," Husted said last night. "This is the first time in our history the absentee ballots could make a difference."
The contract offers a 4 percent raise in each of the next two years plus step increases. But it also requires the union and the state to randomly test teachers for drugs and alcohol.
Union leaders refused to disclose partial results so they do not influence absentee voters, whose deadline is 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Of the 2,300 absentee ballots mailed, only 400 came in yesterday.
Most public school teachers seemed satisfied, even happy, with the pay raises in their proposed contract.
But when it came to voting at various schools yesterday, there was disagreement over the random drug and alcohol testing that comes with the raises.
"The package overall is pretty good," Roger Takabayashi, Hawaii State Teachers Association president, told some teachers yesterday as he answered their questions on the contract. "The only thing you're voting for is if you want random drug testing or not."
That is a decision that weighed heavily with some of the teachers, especially because the contract did not provide details on the procedures and consequences of the drug testing.
Wallace Higa, a math teacher at Roosevelt High School, voted no as a protest to the contract not giving teachers more detailed information.
"I'm not really afraid of getting drug-tested," said Randall Okimoto, a physical education teacher at Farrington High School. "I still have questions about how they're going to randomly drug-test teachers. That, I'm sure they'll figure out and make it fair."
Many teachers were concerned about "false positive" drug testing results. Takabayashi said that if the contract is approved, Department of Education leaders will meet with union leaders to decide the details of drug testing, using the state Transportation Department procedures as guidelines.
"We have to make sure the false positive is really addressed to protect the innocent," Takabayashi said.
But some teachers argue that they should not be the only ones subjected to the tests.
"When we talk about a drug-free school, we're talking about the whole school, including janitors," said James Chiya, a counselor with Roosevelt High School. "Everyone should be tested if teachers are tested."
Christine Ho, a digital media teacher at Farrington High School, said teachers are being scrutinized more because of recent media stories. In February a Kaelepulu Elementary School teacher was arrested in connection with shipments of Ecstasy and cocaine. In December a parent saw two Mililani High School teachers allegedly smoking marijuana before work.
"I think it's inevitable," Ho said. "Nationwide, it's a trend to have random drug testing in the workplace. It is bound to move to the classroom as well."
But Chris Neppl, a language arts teacher at Central Middle School who said he was "insulted" by the contract, believes the teachers with drug-related arrests should not ruin it for everyone.
"It seems like all the things people care about outside of school is test scores. With test scores expected to rise, we should be rewarded as teachers," he said.
Instead, Neppl said teachers are more focused on the pay increases the contract offers.
If ratified, the contract will include a 4 percent raise for each of the next two years, plus step increases. It would pay an entry-level teacher with a bachelor's degree $43,157, up from $39,901, and increase the highest teacher salaries to $79,170 from $73,197, according to HSTA.
"For me, attaching a clause with drug testing is not the right thing," Neppl said. "We need to be stronger as a group of teachers and not just take the easy way out. We shouldn't be selling out to a contract that doesn't award us for our progress."