Friday, September 7, 2001

Federal action looms
in contract dispute

HSTA vents frustration to Ed board

By Crystal Kua

State Superintendent Paul LeMahieu said he may ask a federal judge to step into the contract dispute between the state and the teachers union because it could affect compliance with the special-education-related Felix consent decree.

If a receiver had been appointed, LeMahieu would have suggested that the disagreement over teacher bonuses be split "from the rest of (the contract) and implement everything that's agreed to," LeMahieu said yesterday.

LeMahieu points to the turmoil and uncertainty of the contract dispute between the state and HSTA as a possible reason for a higher number of teacher resignations and retirements this year compared with last year. That could affect the number of teachers available to carry out the consent decree.

The 1994 consent decree came out of a class-action lawsuit that charged the state with violating federal law by not providing appropriate educational and mental health services for special-needs students in the public schools.

The state must now meet certain benchmarks and have 27 school complexes -- high schools and the schools that feed into them -- pass compliance testing by Nov. 1 or face placing the special-education system under federal receivership.

Court-appointed special master Jeff Portnoy spelled out at yesterday's status conference the deadlines the state departments of Health and Education must meet over the next seven months to achieve compliance.

Portnoy also told the departments to bring any specific barriers to compliance to him for immediate resolution.

That could include the contract dispute, LeMahieu said.

"We'll go talk to them about it," LeMahieu said. "We absolutely should look at it."

Teachers ratified a new contract in the spring after striking for three weeks. But pay raises, retention bonuses and other sections of the new contract have not been implemented because the state and HSTA cannot agree on whether the advanced-degree bonuses should be paid once or twice.

Last year, nearly 100 teachers resigned or retired in July and August. This year, the number is about 150.

During the strike, U.S. District Judge David Ezra got involved by talking to negotiators on both sides in an attempt to end the strike, which was having an adverse impact on children and their parents. Portnoy said he and Ezra are concerned about the impact the contract may have on getting special-education teachers. This week, there are 129 special-education vacancies.

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