Apply school days off wisely


POSTED: Thursday, September 24, 2009

A contract overwhelmingly ratified by Hawaii's public schoolteachers has been widely portrayed as one that closes Hawaii schools for 17 days this year and next. But it's more complicated, and potentially outrageous, than that.

When the first Furlough Friday rolls around on Oct. 23, teachers will be absent and students won't be welcome. But HGEA and UPW members could be on campus as usual.

The Hawaii Government Employees Association represents school principals, vice principals, athletic directors, secretaries, clerk-typists and other employees, while the United Public Workers represent custodians and cafeteria workers. The HSTA furloughs do not cover any of those workers.

The HGEA and UPW are negotiating with Gov. Linda Lingle's administration over how to cut labor costs amid the state's financial crisis; an arbitration panel is not scheduled to meet again until Oct. 1.

If the HGEA and UPW contracts end up being decided by binding arbitration, a ruling may not come for months, long after students have lost hours and hours of valuable instructional time.

And the Department of Education won't have saved as much as predicted from furloughing teachers because its calculations also assume overhead savings on budget items such as electricity, water and paper goods, which will come only if the schools are actually closed.

Clearly, the common-sense approach is for the HGEA and UPW to agree to the same furlough days as the teachers, and to do so before the first furlough day.

But the unions represent their members, not Hawaii's students, so that outcome is not assured.

At this point it's not clear whether the HSTA, by accepting 7.9 percent pay cuts with the guarantee of no layoffs in the next two years, has set the floor or the ceiling in contract negotiations.

HGEA and UPW leadership might believe that they'll get better deals the longer they hold out, especially now that classes have been canceled, parents are alarmed and a wide swath of Hawaii families are experiencing in a visceral way the depth of the state's budget crisis.

But the unions should not hold out for an 11th-hour increase in the general excise tax. And the HSTA should be rewarded, not penalized, for being first at the table.

Now is the time for Gov. Lingle, the HGEA and the UPW to agree to at least the same furlough days as the teachers.

A deadlock that would have principals, custodians and cafeteria workers at school while students and teachers are turned away would be an outrage, and make a mockery of the schools' mission to educate Hawaii's youth.