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StarBulletin.com

Teachers should strive to reach an agreement


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POSTED: Saturday, November 28, 2009

When Gov. Linda Lingle agreed two weeks ago to use “;rainy day”; money to reduce the number of Furlough Fridays in school years, the teachers union gave its support. Changing the original plan for teachers to take days off without pay is not so simple, and neither the administration nor public employees unions should use the reopening of contract talks to play hardball.

The state's recently negotiated contract with the Hawaii State Teachers Association calls for teachers to take 17 Fridays off in the current school year and the same number in the next school year. After U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the agreement “;a step in the wrong direction,”; Lingle agreed to tap into the $53 million rainy day fund to restore most, if not all, of the school days targeted for furloughs.

Wil Okabe, president of the teachers union, now suggests the move is inadequate because it would not bring back to work union school employees belonging to the Hawaii Government Employees Association—principals and vice principals that strangely are regarded as labor rather than management—or the United Public Workers—custodians and cafeteria workers. Nor, Okabe says, would it cover costs for fringe benefits. Obviously, HGEA and UPW need to be brought to the table, even though the new HGEA contract is in force.

Lingle's plan also would replace workdays dedicated to teacher planning—these occur while children stay at home—with instructional days to increase those with students in the classroom so the system would not have the fewest such days in the nation. A union official says teachers “;need those planning days to ensure quality education.”;

The administration and the union need to resolve their differences in order for the Legislature to convene in a special session to approve dipping into the rainy day fund. Negotiations are scheduled to begin this week.

Under the furlough plan covering 34 workdays, teachers are destined to take wage reductions of 8 percent. Eliminating most of the workdays from furlough would restore much of their income, but they should not expect their wages to be fully restored while other state employees and thousands of workers in Hawaii's private sector are enduring cuts or layoffs.

If the talks fail to produce agreement, legislators would need to take up the issue in its regular session, which begins in the third week of January. Such a delay would throw school planning and scheduling into chaos for tens of thousands of students and their families. It also would subject the issue to the lengthy and combative committee process, where representatives of Hawaii's social services would compete for restoration of programs through the rainy day fund.

Teachers would be wise to accept changes in time for a special session.