Pay cuts alone don't save enough money


POSTED: Monday, October 26, 2009

Misunderstanding persists about the Hawaii State Teachers Association contract with the state, which was recently ratified. This is apparent in quotes from several individuals appearing in Star-Bulletin articles, as well as in the letters to the editor. Some writers have seized upon misinformation to attack the HSTA, going so far as to state that HSTA negotiated a new contract with no pay cuts to teachers.

Hawaii's teachers are taking an 8 percent pay cut. While some of our association's detractors have demonstrated an abundance of creativity by inventing their own novel definitions of a pay cut, the bottom line is teachers now go home with pay checks that are 8 percent smaller than the checks they were getting before the new contract.

It would be nice if HSTA had the powers some attribute to us and we could dictate the terms of our agreements. For the record, we negotiated from December 2008 with three other parties—the state Department of Education, the Board of Education and the Governor's Office—to reach an agreement in late September. It should be noted that all parties approved all terms in the new contract, not just HSTA.

Several writers and even a former governor appear to think the DOE could have balanced its budget merely by cutting teacher salaries. This is simply wrong. It takes a lot more than the money for teacher salaries to run schools. It takes millions of dollars to keep the lights on and the computers and other electrical equipment running and campuses safe. It takes money to operate cafeterias and other services.

Teachers may run their classrooms, but custodians, administrators and a lot of staff are required to keep an entire school operating effectively and safely. These workers also need to be paid. The DOE cannot balance its budget by cutting teachers salaries 8 percent, while continuing to keep schools open the same number of days, with all of the other labor and operational costs that entails.

The fact is that the DOE took a tremendous cut, more than once, during and after the 2009 legislative session. There's nowhere left to cut that will not touch our classrooms. The department has already implemented staff layoffs. Programs, books and supplies have been cut. Vacant positions have been eliminated. If we are going to end furloughs and give our children the instructional time they require, our elected officials are going to have to begin restoring funds to the educational system.

It's not about the time. Teachers have always been dedicated to their students' success. They have never hesitated to put in extra hours before school and after school, as well as countless hours on weeknights and weekends. In short, when the students have needed them, teachers have been there. Whether it means putting out their own money so their kids can go on field trips or eat lunch or whether it means out-of-pocket purchases of books and supplies in their classrooms, teachers have gladly stepped forward to help do their part.

Our most recent contract is yet another example of that commitment. Teachers have agreed to dig even deeper and sacrifice even more. They've taken an 8 percent pay cut and put a lot of their personal needs on the back burner. When told that this was needed for the good of the community, they agreed to share the state's financial burden.

It's time for our elected officials to step up to the plate and demonstrate how much they truly value education and how much they really care about our kids. They are the ones who made furloughs necessary by failing to fully fund the education budget in the first place. The letter writers and parents have every reason to be angry and disappointed. But they should understand that it's up to the people they elected to fund our education system, and only they can end these furloughs, whether they do it through tax cuts, borrowing from special funds or some other means.

From the beginning of collective bargaining on this year's contract, we always felt that one furlough day is one too many. We hoped to avoid furloughs altogether and tried our best to do so during our contract negotiations. The lack of funding made that impossible. Hawaii's public school teachers are saddened and frustrated they cannot give their students all the instructional time they deserve. Nothing would make us happier than to see the education budget restored and furloughs ended. While teachers didn't cause this situation, they are trying their best to improve it, but it will take all of us working together to over-come the challenges we face.

Wil Okabe is president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.