Furlough blame game


POSTED: Monday, October 19, 2009

Sandra Togashi is “;angry and upset”; and feeling the squeeze from all sides.

She teaches social studies at Kawananakoa Middle School and has two children in public school.

“;Furloughs personally affect my 143 students, my own children, my colleagues and me as a single parent,”; Togashi says.

So she is watching Hawaii's leaders closely for their response to Furlough Fridays, a budget-cutting plan that is shaping up as a political disaster.

Shutting the schools 17 Fridays this year and an additional 24 Fridays in 2010 has set off a new round of worry for political and community leaders.

“;There is a widespread feeling of outrage waiting to be mobilized,”; said James Koshiba, one of the founders of Kanu Hawaii, a community improvement organization. “;It's sad and shameful that at the very moment when President Obama is calling for a longer school year, his home state has reduced ours to the shortest school year in the nation.”;

Koshiba said he was not speaking for Kanu Hawaii.

“;I hope it's a political wake-up call for us as parents, citizens and adults who care about keiki,”; he said. “;I hope the public outcry at the rally (at the state Capitol on Friday) and beyond shapes the priorities of those running for office next year,”; Koshiba said.

Caught in the middle are the state's public school students.

“;This is really an unacceptable solution,”; says Pono Shim, president of Enterprise Hawaii, an economic development organization. “;We aren't really furloughing the teachers. We are furloughing the kids, and time is running out to do something.”;

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who endured a teachers strike during his second term and who worked to change the teachers' contract to include more time in the classroom, sees room for leadership.

Cayetano faults the union - the Hawaii State Teachers Association - for taking unpaid furlough days when school is supposed to be in session, rather than taking the time off on so-called professional development days when there are no classes.

He also faults the governor “;for not coming up with ways to avoid the furloughs and for agreeing to HSTA's furlough plan to use only instructional days.”;

Adds Cayetano, “;As for the political fallout, the burden falls on the governor to take the lead. She hasn't done it.”;

Hawaii Republican Party Chairman Jonah-Kuhio Kaauwai argues the HSTA agreed to the furloughs and that Gov. Linda Lingle was not involved. Plus, he says, the Legislature is controlled by the public employee unions.

“;In the end, the Legislature has the authority as they showed in the last session; they will overturn all of her vetoes, and the power lies in the Legislature,”; Kaauwai said.

Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, a Democrat, disagrees.

“;I don't see how the Republicans are going to be able to say that somehow they do not share in the blame in this whole thing,”; she said. “;Let's face it, when it comes to collective bargaining, it is the governor. So how can you pass that off and say somehow it is not your party's fault?”;

Lowell Kalapa, Tax Foundation of Hawaii president, says Lingle can argue that the Legislature handed her a budget with insufficient savings and that she was “;forced to make the unilateral decision to impose cuts and chose furloughs as a more humane alternative to layoffs.”;

“;She is going to play hard-nose with the unions and the DOE (Department of Education). So if there is going to be political fallout, she will make sure it falls on the Legislature,”; Kalapa said.

Beyond the finger-pointing, a solution remains elusive.

“;I don't think there is anyone who would say they don't want to do something, but the question is, What are we going to do?”; said Hanabusa. “;You can't address this problem without money.”;

Sen. Norman Sakamoto, Education Committee chairman, says he has been quietly sounding out fellow Democrats to see whether they are willing to return before the start of the 2010 Legislature in January to fund the furlough days and keep the teachers in the classroom.

“;Unless the governor proposes a specific dollar amount, it will be difficult for us to come back before the regular session,”; he added.