HONOLULU - Hawaii's teacher union members begin voting this week on a contract they rejected earlier this year, despite warnings from the state that the agreement is no longer valid.
Hawaii State Teachers Association members will vote electronically and via telephone from today through Tuesday. Teachers can either accept the offer or authorize a strike, the union said.
Union leaders said the unusual, unprecedented effort to ask members to revisit the contract they rejected in January is an attempt to prevent the state from losing a $75 million federal grant to carry out education reforms. The U.S. Department of Education has warned the grant could be taken away because of unsatisfactory progress on promised reforms, including using student performance when evaluating teachers and determining compensation.
But Gov. Neil Abercrombie had indicated that negotiating teams would need to update the agreement, which union members rejected 67 percent to 33 percent.
Teachers told the union they were uncomfortable with a lack of information on the evaluation system. The union had vowed that they would gather feedback from teachers for a new proposal.
Mililani High School teacher Amy Perruso said a lack of information wasn't the basis for rejecting the contract, but that a continued 5 percent pay cut and basing evaluations on student performance unfairly ask too much of teachers. "It's not fair to base pay on student population," she said. "Merit pay doesn't improve effectiveness of teachers."
But she doesn't only blame the union, but also the state, which implemented its "last, best and final" contract offer over the summer.
Union President Wil Okabe said the contract offer was the best teachers can get. He also believes it's the only way to give teachers a say in how the evaluation system is developed.
"We continue to believe, as the governor did in January, that the tentative agreement we reached with him is in the best interest of teachers, students and the state of Hawaii," he said.
That agreement is no longer valid and the union didn't accept the state's offer to return to the bargaining table, said Donalyn Dela Cruz, spokeswoman for the governor.
"Teachers deserve to vote on a legitimate contract," she said. "The state has been ready and willing to restart collective bargaining, which is the only way to reach a labor contract that can then be ratified."
HSTA Executive Director Al Nagasako said the agreement to be voted on hasn't been updated or changed.
"We're moving forward with it," he said. "We feel that's appropriate at this time."
Perruso said teachers were "flabbergasted" to hear they were being asked to revisit the contract they rebuffed. "There wasn't a teacher I talked to who wasn't just furious," she said. "It's an insult to say, 'we don't trust your judgment from before' and make you go through the process again."
As the union readies for the start of voting, information on how to vote is being mailed to teachers' homes and informational meetings are being held.
"We are determined to do everything we can to inform teachers, answer their questions and ask them to reconsider their vote," Okabe said.