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With school set to start Monday, teachers ask for new talks

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 2:30 a.m. HST, Jul 28, 2011

As most public school teachers take their first furlough day today under a state-imposed contract, the teachers union is appealing to the governor to resume negotiations and resolve a labor dispute before students start a new school year Monday.

"Please join me in bringing our teams together to resolve the remaining issues before the school year begins," Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe said in a letter to Gov. Neil Abercrombie that was shared with HSTA members Wednesday.

Okabe also wrote, "I am now appealing to you as Neil — a person who I know is better able to resolve this matter than those to whom you have delegated too much authority."

In a letter responding to Okabe Wednesday, Abercrombie said the state has not refused to return to the bargaining table, but that "HSTA has not offered any new proposals for discussion."

"The state and HSTA worked through 16 formal bargaining sessions … two separate meetings you had with members of the state's negotiating team and three meetings you had with me," Abercrombie said in his response. "When the state offered mediation, the HSTA refused."

The governor closed the letter by saying his "aim remains on moving forward."

"Why don't we set legal complaints aside and focus on working together for the benefit of our students, our teachers and our schools?" Abercrombie said.

The union appeal comes as teachers are preparing for the start of the school year with two fewer days to get ready.

Most teachers are on furlough today and Friday, days normally used for collaboration and setting up classrooms for the return of students. But several teachers said they would come in on the furlough days or during the weekend. They have been told they will be allowed on campus on furlough days after 3 p.m.

Dayle Hoopai, a first-grade teacher at Nuuanu Elementary, worked in her classroom Wednesday and was planning to come in this afternoon. She said she would also be there on Sunday.

She needs the time to get everything ready, she said.

Down the hall, Trina Kahawai, a kindergarten teacher, was working feverishly with the help of her husband and 12-year-old son to get her classroom finished so that she wouldn't have to come in on her time off.

"Hopefully," she said, "it all gets done."

As the union tries to persuade the state to return to the bargaining table, it is also pushing forward with a "prohibited practice" complaint before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board.

The union filed additional material this week with the board to support its claim that the state violated members' rights in unilaterally imposing a contract offer.

The state's "last, best and final" offer includes a decrease in pay, furloughs and increased health care premiums. Abercrombie and schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi have said the labor savings were needed to avoid layoffs or cuts in class time.

Both sides are scheduled to go before the labor board next month, starting with a "pre-hearing" meeting Aug. 5. A hearing on the union's motion seeking relief from 5 percent wage reductions (a 1.5 percent pay cut and furlough days) and higher health insurance premiums is scheduled for Aug. 10.<t$>

HSTA has requested an earlier hearing.

In an amended motion filed Monday, HSTA also argued members would suffer "irreparable injury" if the terms of the imposed contract are not lifted. "Members are questioning HSTA and the value of the collective bargaining process. Restoring the status quo would calm tensions … disruptive to schools," it said.

To receive "interlocutory relief," the union must show the likelihood of its complaint prevailing on merits, irreparable harm and that providing relief is in the public interest.

The state, in a response, argued HSTA bargained in bad faith and failed to come to an agreement after "many months" of negotiations and dozens of proposals.

The state Attorney General's Office plans to hire private attorney Robert Katz to help fight the union complaint. The state has filed a procurement exemption to pay Katz $50,000.

In a statement, Okabe called Katz an "anti-union lawyer."



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