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Back To School

Furlough Fridays may meet an early end if all goes according to a new plan to get teachers and students back in the classroom. Governor Linda Lingle announced last week that she is working on a compromise to eliminate all 27 teacher furlough days that are scheduled to take place between now and the end of the 2010-11 school year.

The proposed compromise includes an additional $50 million from the state’s “Rainy Day Fund” if the teachers and their unions agree to spend more time in the classroom and less time planning their lessons.

“We are pleased that the governor has decided to use the Rainy Day Fund to reduce the number of furlough days. If there ever was a rainy day for Hawaii’s public education system, this is it,” said Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) President Wil Okabe.

Lingle said that the money would be used to fund 12 extra school days from now until the end of the 2010-11 school year. In return, she is asking teachers to take 15 non-instructional workdays and turn them into days spent with the students in the classroom.

The original furlough schedule negotiated earlier this year mandated 34 days without school over the course of two years. As of January, when the new plan is proposed to take effect, seven of those days will have already happened. The new plan would eliminate all 27 of the remaining furlough days.

“[The teachers] gain something, they give up something,” Lingle said in a recent press conference. “The students gain everything and if this is about students, this plan works and it should be adopted and there’s no reason for delay.”

Releasing the Rain
Lingle and the rest of the state government are working to try to get rid of any delays that may stand in the way of the new plan. The first, a legal issue with using Rainy Day funds, was taken care last Friday.

The Rainy Day Fund is an emergency pot of roughly $60 million that was set up to help maintain programs essential to public health, safety, welfare and education. However, the law governing the fund also specifically prohibits using the money during collective bargaining agreements. In other words, it is technically illegal to pay unionized teachers with money from the fund.

Last Friday, leaders of the state House and Senate told Lingle they would be willing to hold a special session to discuss changing the rainy day laws, allowing the money to be used to end furloughs.

Time to Plan
There are, however, some obstacles that still stand in the way. Lingle said the money will only be granted if HSTA agrees to change 15 non-instructional days to days in the classroom. Okabe and other union members said they would not be able to make a decision until they received a formal proposal from the Hawaii Board of Education (BOE).

“The teachers said they were receptive to talking about it, but are going to wait for a formal proposal to be made,” said John Williamson, a media consultant for HSTA.

Many teachers are also worried about the loss of important planning days, which may cause delays in negotiating the new contract. Most declined to comment because no official proposal has been made at this point.

“It allows us to get our focus back on improving education – on the quality of education – rather than on simply the quantity of education. I think this is a very important distinction to make,” Lingle said.

Molokai High School Principal Denise Kelly said eliminating non-instructional days may end up hurting that quality of education in the long run.

“The bottom line [of adding school days] is to provide students more instruction, and in order to supply them with effective instruction, they need time to plan,” she said. “Taking away teacher planning is going to hurt the children in the long run.”

The collective bargaining agreements also become more complicated because not all school employees are part of the HSTA union. Principals, office employees and school health aides belong to the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) and the United Public Workers (UPW) represent the schools custodians and cafeteria workers.

“Theoretically the teachers could agree to everything, but schools wouldn’t be able to open unless the other two unions also signed off,” Williamson said.

Lingle said she hopes that all of these wrinkles will be solved and the new plan can be put into action in January.

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