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HSTA shut out on contract

The Department of Education will execute its "last, best" offer to teachers without union approval

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 5:16 a.m. HST, Jun 28, 2011

The state Department of Education is moving to unilaterally put into effect its "last, best and final" contract offer to 12,700 public school teachers, and says pay and time-off provisions that amount to a 5 percent cut will take effect Friday.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association said it is exploring its legal options to stop the contract from going into effect.

State Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi told the Star-Advertiser Monday that the department has declared an impasse in negotiations with the teachers union, and "now we are moving forward on implementation on the final offer."

Federal labor law allows an employer to implement its "last, best" offer if it feels contract talks have hit an impasse. The union may disagree that an impasse exists and file an unfair labor practice to reopen negotiations.

The existing two-year contract for teachers expires Thursday.

A host of education reforms the department has pledged to execute for the coming school year, such as teacher evaluations tied to student performance in some schools, hinges on teachers getting a new contract.

The department's operating budget for the next two fiscal years also assumes a 5 percent reduction in labor costs.

"If we don't begin the savings on July 1, we have to find money somewhere else to cover that," Matayoshi said. "We're moving forward on implementation. We're trying to figure out how to survive in a very difficult budget. If we don't get the labor savings, then we find the money from somewhere else in the budget."

HSTA President Wil Okabe said last night he is interested in returning to contract talks and wants union members to know "we remain committed to bringing negotiations to a successful conclusion."

"We want to continue bargaining and hope the DOE returns to the table to meet and work on the supports teachers need to teach and students need to learn," Okabe said in an email to the Star-Advertiser. "If the superintendent does not want to continue working toward a settlement that fulfills the state's promise to make education a priority, we will need to explore next steps in response to the state's unilateral decision to quit on students and teachers midstream."

The department took the unusual step Friday of pushing away from the bargaining table and appealing to teachers directly, sending each HSTA member a letter with details on its "last, best and final" offer.

The state's offer for teachers includes:

» A 1.5 percent reduction in the salary pay rate and leave without pay -- or furloughs -- on certain noninstructional days, for a total wage reduction equivalent to 5 percent.

(Teachers on a 10-month school year would have 7 1/2 unpaid days off, while year-round teachers would have nine unpaid days off).

» A 50-50 split on employee and state contributions to medical insurance;

» Increased preparation time for teachers.

The contract would also cut in half annual bonuses for teachers in hard-to-fill areas, to $1,500 from $3,000.

Okabe said Friday that the HSTA board had reviewed the department's offer and rejected it in a unanimous vote. The union will not bring it to teachers for a vote, he said.

The department's offer is similar to contracts accepted by most units of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which represents many of the state's white-collar workers. The Abercrombie administration and the United Public Workers, which represents blue-collar workers, are still in contract talks.

In a statement last week, Gov. Neil Abercrombie said the administration has made it known that all public employees would need to "make a shared sacrifice of a 5 percent pay reduction and equal employer-employee contributions for health care benefits."

Abercrombie spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said Monday that negotiations with HSTA "have stopped," but "we are always willing to listen to HSTA if they'd like to come back to the table."

Teachers were still trying to learn more details of the contract Monday, and many were concerned about how the pay cuts and furloughs would affect their budgets.

Luane Higuchi, a media teacher at Waianae Intermediate School, said her family would have to further cut expenses if the contract is implemented.

"It's already tough," she said. "My family will have to start looking at how we can make up the difference."

But Higuchi also said that she understands the need for pay cuts during the tough fiscal times.

"Everybody has to share," she said, adding that she doesn't know whether continuing contract negotiations would get teachers a better deal. "It's going to hurt everybody. I don't know if it's going to be getting any better."

Thomas Stuart, a math teacher at Kohala Middle School, said he doesn't believe the department has a choice when it comes to the new contract.

"The state has to balance the budget," he said. "We teachers have to realize we cannot exist independent of the taxpayers."

Stuart also said that the department's decision to go directly to teachers was unusual.

"I see this as a raw power play," said Stuart. "They win, the union is going to take a setback."

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