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Editorial | Our View

Act quickly on HSTA contract


Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi were justified in taking the unconventional step of going public Friday with a “last, best and final offer” to the Hawaii State Teachers Association. These are unconventional times: A wobbly economy requires that savings be achieved, and time is running out to forge a final union contract before the next school year begins.

The current contract for the state’s 12,700 teachers expires Thursday, and the first day of school for students is Aug. 1. It’s hard to see how the union can get this agreement hammered out in time for teachers to meet that timetable without accelerating the pace of negotiations, which have been going on for months.

Although it’s rare that negotiating parties will release details of its offer at this stage, it is clear that the administration already has made a good-faith effort to craft a decent deal for teachers, considering the lean times — and that the process needed this hard push.

The state Department of Education has begun sending letters to teachers outlining details of the offer, and Matayoshi recorded a video posted online for public consumption, summarizing key points of the two-year proposal:

>> Teachers would take a 1.5 percent pay reduction, but that only goes part-way toward Abercrombie’s goal of 5 percent labor savings from state departments.

>> The rest of the 5 percent savings would be achieved through converting non-instructional days to unpaid leave days. According to sources, this means 71⁄2 days for teachers on a nine-month calendar and nine days for those teaching year-round.

>> The employee contribution toward health benefits would increase to a 50-50 split with the employer, up from the 40 percent teachers pay now.

>> Teachers’ time for classroom preparation during the regular workweek would increase.

Some things still need to be ironed out — it’s unclear how the state will be able to square this settlement with the state mandate for a 180-day academic year, for example. In the final deal, some things need to be sacrosanct — and here’s one: Matayoshi made a firm commitment in her statement that there would be “no reduction in instructional days.” That pledge must be kept; otherwise, the state will be looking at essentially a return to school furloughs that reduce classroom time.

Wil Okabe, HSTA president, is unhappy with this turn of events, but even he acknowledged in his letter to members that the contract has improved in quality from a “C-minus” to a “B-minus.” “And while we recognize that it isn’t possible to get an ‘A-plus’ contract during tough times, we continue to believe good-faith bargaining can bring better results,” Okabe wrote.

But that ignores the short time that remains. It would be wrong to hold out hope for something closer to perfection, if that means the school year can’t begin at an acceptable state of readiness.

The governor hopes that an improved economy will give him the wherewithal to do better by the teachers in terms of pay and benefits, and he’s right to promise them an improved package when revenues pick up. Teachers deserve better pay than they’re getting now.

But as for the current negotiation, time is nearly up. The realist has to acknowledge that 2011 is not the optimal time for great expectations. A B-minus? That’s not too shabby, considering.

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