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Conflict hampering public school reforms

Improvement plans cannot begin until the teachers agree to them

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 5:43 a.m. HST, Jul 12, 2011

This story has been corrected.

Continuing turmoil surrounding a new contract for public school teachers could delay key Race to the Top education reforms that require union approval, including several the state pledged to launch in the approaching school year, observers say.

Lawmakers, education analysts and others said strained relations between the state and Hawaii State Teachers Association will almost certainly make for harder discussions about such issues as revamped teacher evaluations, the tenure system and incentive pay.

They also point out those matters, in the short term, are unlikely to be tackled until the overall teachers contract is resolved.

Whether the wrangling could jeopardize the state's $75 million federal Race to the Top grant Hawaii received last August after pledging to make ambitious improvements of its public education system isn't clear.

But several onlookers agreed the contract dispute -- and the absence of negotiations for now -- highlight just how tough making important portions of the state's Race reforms will be.

"The reality is it takes a lot of agreement among a lot of people to actually make reforms happen," said Christine Sorenson, dean of the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Education. "It's a shared responsibility and there are implications if you don't. You could lose the money."


The state imposed a new contract for Hawaii’s 12,700 teachers July 1, putting in place wage reductions and higher premiums for health benefits. The two-year contract has not yet been made public, but here are details provided to teachers so far:

» 1.5 percent pay cut

» Nine furlough days for 12-month teachers and 71⁄2 furlough days for 10-month teachers in each year of the contract.

» The furlough days on noninstructional days in the coming school year will be on July 28-29, Oct. 10, Dec. 16, Jan. 3, March 9, May 25 and June 29, 2012 (for 12-month employees). Also, 12-month teachers will take a half-day on June 22, 2012, and all teachers will take 31⁄2 hours, in increments of 30 minutes or more, on short days.

» A 50-50 split on employee and state contributions to medical insurance. Teachers were paying 40 percent.

» Teacher prep periods increase by five minutes a week, to 45 minutes, but principals will only be allowed to tell teachers how to use six of their daily prep periods (from eight)

» Teachers also get less time for meetings — from 335 minutes to 310 minutes a week for self-contained classes and from 465 minutes to 440 minutes a week for departmental classes

» Retention bonuses for teachers in hard-to-staff areas were cut in half, to $1,500 per year.

Source: Department of Education


On Friday, a week after the state unilaterally imposed its contract offer in an unprecedented move, HSTA filed a "prohibited practice" complaint with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, contending that the state violated members' rights.

The Department of Education has not publicly released the two-year contract offer with wage reductions that it imposed July 1, leaving teachers in the dark about its full terms.

Meanwhile, just weeks before school begins, several Race implementation issues remain unresolved, at least in part because talks with HSTA have come to a standstill.

In its Race plan, for example, the department said it would launch performance-based teacher evaluations in the upcoming school year in 14 schools on Oahu and Hawaii island.

It also said it would put in place incentives for highly qualified teachers.

Robert Campbell, department executive assistant for strategic reform, couldn't say whether the new evaluations based in part on student growth would be put in place by the start of the school year Aug. 1.

"They're working on what can be done without the supplemental" agreement with the union, he said, adding that Race to the Top improvements are "moving."

Other education officials were traveling last week and did not respond to questions about the progress toward Race goals that require negotiations. The HSTA also did not respond to numerous requests for comment on the issue.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Saturday would not comment directly on the HSTA filing with the HLRB.

"The main thing is to just remember that we're with the teachers, we're with the students, we're getting school under way," he said. "Everything is going now. That's the most important thing. We're on our way to Race to the Top. We've ended the furlough. We feel that everything is going to work out for the best. I'm confident about that."

When asked by a reporter if the state was going to go back into negotiations, he said they were completed.

"We're moving on with the school year now. I'm sure both the teachers, the parents, and everyone would like to see us get on with it. Everybody has to share; everybody has to put their paddle in the water and pull. That's what everybody's doing. I'm confident that when everything's concluded, the support for the teachers, for the students, for the school year will continue."

He did not respond to HSTA's comment that the state's actions were unconstitutional.

"I don't think we want to concentrate on things like that," he said. "We want to concentrate on support for the teachers, support for the schools, support for our kids' future."

A delay in beginning improved teacher evaluations, given that they are a pillar of the state's Race plans, would be a significant setback for a school system trying to prove itself to those who called its proposed reforms overly ambitious at a time of budget cuts.

State Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said a good relationship between the HSTA and department will be key for the reforms -- such as new evaluations -- to become a reality. And she said the first step toward mending fences in the wake of the contract dispute will be both sides sitting down to talk.

"We do need to see a resolution to this," she said. "We've really got to figure out how we're going to keep moving forward. Can we somehow respect the differences we've had in the past and really understand the more challenging work is ahead of us?"

The governor and state schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi have said the contract proposal, which has a 1.5 percent pay cut, furlough days and higher health insurance premiums, was needed to save money and is in line with what other public employees received.

The state has not released the contract for the 12,500 public school teachers.

On Friday, department spokeswoman Sandy Goya said, "We are working on putting together the document and it should be completed shortly."

The lack of information is wearing on teachers, who have bombarded the state and HSTA with emails and letters, and are posting their concerns on social media websites.

"We haven't seen anything," said Kevin Matsunaga, a media teacher and technology coordinator at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Lihue. "There are questions that I have about, what else is in there (the contract)? Why haven't we seen it yet?"

The state's decision to implement the contract after being unable to reach a deal in negotiations comes as the department is also pushing for reforms during a time of worsening fiscal austerity.

"Certainly, the budget issues are at a minimum a distraction," said Campbell, of the strategic reform office. "It is making it a challenge."

The department plans to file several amendments to its Race to the Top "scope of work" with the federal government soon, but Campbell would not say if any changes to teachers' evaluations would be sought or if the amendments are needed because of funding or negotiations issues.

Hawaii has already gotten approval for a handful of amendments, largely on implementation timelines for smaller issues.

Other states have also sought amendments, and the U.S. Department of Education says "minor adjustments" are acceptable as states work through their plans. However, the agency said "changes or revisions to a state's plan that would significantly decrease or eliminate" reforms are not allowed.

Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst with Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, said the government is interested in giving states leeway and understands that improvements are being undertaken at a time of dwindling resources.

"The federal government doesn't want to take back the money," she said. "I think there's a recognition at every level that states are under a lot of pressure."

Still, she said, the U.S. Department of Education is monitoring Race states closely. Federal officials made their first trip to Hawaii to check on the state's progress last month, and are expected to issue a report later this year.

Silva also noted that Hawaii isn't alone in struggling with union negotiations, and that some have had better success than others in securing agreements.

"Not only does reform take time," she said, "but negotiated reform takes time."

Hawaii was one of 10 winners -- nine states and the District of Columbia -- to snag competitive Race to the Top money in a second round of grants last year. (Two states won in the first round).

Reforms are designed to boost student achievement and turn around the lowest-performing schools.

The new teacher evaluations, which HSTA has agreed to in concept, are designed to pinpoint effective and ineffective teachers by tracking the academic growth of their students. Current evaluations for Hawaii teachers use observations only.

Details of how student growth will be measured, however, are unclear because that is also an issue subject to closed-door negotiations.

HSTA officials have voiced concerns about the new evaluations, raising questions about how the system could be implemented fairly and not penalize teachers for issues outside of their control, such as the demographics of their students.

Under the Race plan, teachers whose students don't progress would get additional training. Eventually, how effective a teacher is would be used for high-stakes decisions, like certification, tenure and bonuses. Teachers who are persistently ineffective could be reprimanded or fired.

The department has said it would start the new evaluations this fall with about 1,500 teachers in two "zones for school innovation" -- Oahu's Leeward Coast and the Kau-Pahoa area on Hawaii island, where the state's largest numbers of persistently low-performing schools are found.

Next year, the pilot program is scheduled to be started at an additional 40 schools, before expanding to all schools by 2013.

Star-Advertiser reporter Rob Shikina contributed to this report.


» Principals will only be allowed to tell teachers how to use six of their daily prep periods, from eight, under the state’s new imposed contract terms. Information accompanying a Page A1 article Sunday said teachers would get fewer prep periods.

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