Hawaii Strike Deadline Nears
About 13,000 teachers and 3,000 university faculty in Hawaii are prepared to strike today if teachers organizations and the state do not reach a contract agreement. Low pay and the high cost of living in the islands have forced the dispute, according to union officials. Included: Information about salary levels and negotiations.
Hawaii is bracing for a possible teachers strike today. If teachers walk off the job, it will be the first time in the nation's history that a state's entire public education system, from kindergarten to graduate school, shuts down.
Negotiators for the state and the teachers unions must reach a settlement by April 5. If efforts fail, members of the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) and the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly (UHPA), the university's 3,000-member faculty union, are scheduled to take to the picket lines by 6 a.m. Hawaii time.
Ninety-nine percent of the HSTA membership and 91 percent of UHPA members voted in favor of a strike. Both unions are affiliates of the National Education Association (NEA), the country's largest teachers' union, which supports the Hawaii teachers. Members of both unions have worked without contracts since July 1, 1999.
Salaries for public school teachers in Hawaii currently rank 18th in the country, ranging from $29,000 to $58,000. The cost of living, however, is about one-third higher than the national average.
A strike would mean the end of classes for about 190,000 public school students and about 45,000 university students on ten campuses. Hawaii is unique in that it has one central public school district for the entire state, which one superintendent oversees. State taxes fund the school system, which receives no money from local property taxes.
"We are hopeful but planning for the worst," Danielle Lum, an HSTA spokeswoman tells Education World. "If there is no agreement, our teachers will be on strike. We are telling people in the union to be prepared for a six- to eight-week strike."
Jalaine Kelly, a high school special education teacher, says the possibility of a strike is causing tension at her school. "It's very stressful, and the kids feel it. People in other unions worry that they may have to cross a picket line."
As negotiations continue, the HSTA and the state remain far apart. The HSTA seeks a 22-percent increase over four years, retroactive to July 1, 1999. Negotiators for the state offer a 12-percent salary increase over a two-year period and a 20-percent increase for starting teachers, according to Jackie Kido, a spokeswoman for Governor Benjamin Cayetano. That would push union salaries up from 18th highest in the nation to 11th, says Kido.
The state also offers two additional paid professional development days, Kido adds. Teachers who participate in professional development could advance more quickly up the salary scale.
The governor's proposed increase is not enough to hire and keep teachers in a state with a cost of living 31 percent above the national average, Lum counters. "People stay two years and leave," she says of many teachers. "We can't recruit and we can't retain teachers because of the low salaries and the high cost of living."
State officials hire non-certified teachers or use substitutes to fill vacancies, Lum continues. "On any given day, there are as many as 143 long-term substitutes in classrooms," according to Lum, some of whom stay as long as a month. About 28 of the people employed as "emergency hires" have not attended college, she explains. They have a certain amount of time to earn degrees.
UHPA members seek a 6-percent increase each year for two years; the state proposes a 7-percent raise over two years and an additional 3 percent in possible merit increases. John Radcliffe, the union's associate executive director, says university faculty members have not received increases in five of the past seven years. The state also proposes withholding contributions to faculty members' health insurance plans for June, July, and August, he notes.
In a March 28 address, Cayetano told state residents that although teachers certainly deserve a raise, the state cannot afford the unions' figures. Agreeing to the combined proposed increases could cost the state an additional $540 million; the HSTA proposal alone would cost $295 million, he explains.
Teachers received increases during a state economic recession in the 1990s, when other state department budgets were cut and some state workers laid off, Kido says. Teachers received a 14-percent increase in 1997, when the governor cut back some social programs. "The Department of Education was the only one out of 18 departments in the state that did not get its budget cut" over the past six or seven years, she adds.
The increases have not come fast enough, according to Kelly, the high school special education teacher. Last year, as a first-year teacher in Texas, she earned $33,500; when she moved to Hawaii, her salary dropped to $29,200. As a single parent with one child, Kelly says, she has considered taking a second job to help make ends meet, so she is prepared to strike. "One entire paycheck a month [out of two] goes to rent because of the cost of living," Kelly explains.
As part of its contingency plan in the event of a strike, the Hawaii Department of Education will close schools today and Friday. During that time, administrators plan to review their school resources and determine their ability to staff classes, ensure student safety, and provide instruction. Schools may re-open in stages beginning Monday, with some grades returning to school sooner than some others. School openings and schedules will be announced the day before they take effect.
State education officials have also requested that the Hawaii Labor Relations Board designate 322 special education teachers as "essential workers," which means they would be ineligible to strike.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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