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Substitute teachers prevail in back-pay case

Hawaii's high court declines to hear the state's appeal

By Travis Kaya

LAST UPDATED: 12:07 p.m. HST, Aug 18, 2010

The Hawaii Supreme Court will not take up the state's appeal of a ruling that requires the Department of Education to give substitute teachers millions of dollars in back pay.

That means the case will go back to Circuit Court, where the state and substitute teachers will work out an agreement over how much the substitutes are owed.

An attorney for the substitutes said yesterday that back pay for about 10,000 teachers affected by the decision could top $30 million.

"Every day the state delayed paying this debt, it hurt the teachers," said attorney Paul Alston. "We're glad that we're now going to be going back to the Circuit Court to have the amount of damages calculated."

The Intermediate Court of Appeals ruled in October that the state underpaid thousands of Hawaii substitute teachers between 2000 and 2005. The Supreme Court's action means that the Intermediate Court decision stands, and the case will be returned to Circuit Court to decide how much the teachers are owed.

The case stems from a 2002 complaint from Maui substitute teacher David Garner, who claimed that the DOE violated a 1996 state law pegging pay for substitute teachers to rates for Class II teachers -- full-time instructors who have bachelor's degrees but lack advanced training. Between 1996 and 2005, pay for substitute teachers increased just 11 percent, compared with 40 percent for Class II teachers.

The department, however, claimed that state guidelines for substitute teacher salaries were unclear and that the teachers were receiving the pay to which they were entitled.

Following a 2005 Circuit Court decision in the teachers' favor, the DOE filed an appeal with the Intermediate Court of Appeals, which agreed with the lower court. Earlier this year the state filed its final appeal with the Hawaii Supreme Court, which had until Monday to decide whether it would hear the case.

"We're disappointed they chose not to hear it," said Deputy Attorney General Dorothy Sellers. "We are hoping for a fair and speedy resolution."

Although substitute teachers claimed they were illegally underpaid from 1996, Circuit Judge Karen Ahn ruled in 2005 that a statute of limitations allowed plaintiffs to claim back pay for only the period between November 2000 and June 2005, when the Legislature changed the substitute salary guidelines.

Back pay will be calculated through a computerized analysis of the department's payroll records during the relevant years to determine the difference in the salaries of substitute and Class II teachers.

According to Alston, the Supreme Court's decision will also have some bearing on a separate but similar class-action lawsuit brought by 15,000 part-time teachers because their salaries are based on substitute teacher pay. The lawsuit for the part-time teachers has been put on hold by the Circuit Court pending the resolution of the substitute teacher case.

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