Teachers’ contract vote count out today

Roughly 1,900 absentee ballots from Hawai‘i State Teachers Association members could make or break a tentative agreement to increase pay for teachers by as much as 11 percent over the next two years, according to Roger Takabayashi, the association’s president. And until all results are in tonight, the union is not saying how members voted during statewide elections last Thursday.

“Telling people we know which way it’s going can influence the absentee voting,” Ta-kabayashi said.

Four months of formal negotiations between the state and the teachers union culminated April 20 in a tentative agreement to raise salaries 4 percent at the start of the next school year, with a step movement of about 3 percent in the second semester for teachers with satisfactory performances and another 4 percent raise at the start of the 2008 school year for all, according to a press release from Gov. Linda Lingle’s office.

If approved, the raise would boost pay for entry-level teachers from about $39,000 to $43,000.

The two-year contract — which would take effect July 1 of this year and expire June 30, 2009 — also calls for random drug and alcohol testing, which could be the deciding factor in how teachers vote, Takabayashi said.

Tom Perry, director of the union’s Kaua‘i office, confirmed Monday that the vote is “extremely close.” This year’s negotiations also mark the first time that the union asked its members to vote on a contract without a recommendation from the board of directors.

The hot-button issue for teachers, Perry said, is the random drug testing proviso and, more specifically, the fact that it was presented as non-negotiable during the 23rd hour of negotiations.

“I’ve heard (teachers) are angry with the governor for the way in which she imposed this upon them,” Perry said.

The union’s negotiating team had been working for months on language for drug and alcohol testing involving reasonable suspicion. But the random testing clause for all staff came as a surprise, Perry said.

According to the governor’s office, the Department of Education and the union will work to develop a program for the random testing if the contract is accepted. Perry said there are a lot of questions to be addressed about its implementation such as whether a teacher with a false positive test result would be removed immediately, placed on paid suspension or allowed to test again.

Kapa‘a High School Registrar and union member Elaine Denny voted last week and thinks the deal is fair, especially since the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association will be involved in creating the testing procedures. She said she trusts the union to represent teachers’ best interests when deciding who will have access to test results and the method of selecting teachers for testing.

“Random drug testing will come sometime, if not now,” she said. “I accept it if it comes.”

But Kaua‘i Chapter President Jeri Yamagata, also the student services coordinator at Kaua‘i High School, said many teachers on her campus don’t trust the governor or the Department of Education to look out for teachers because the agreement lacks specifics.

“As they say, the devil is in the details,” she said.

Because Yamagata also serves on the board of directors, she could not offer her own opinion on the matter, but she emphasized that child safety is the No. 1 priority for the union and that it fully supports reasonable suspicion drug testing.

Still other teachers say the drug testing clause has overshadowed the real issue: pay.

“Teachers have not ever yet in my 20-plus years (of teaching) been offered a fair raise,” said Judy Gardner, a Kapa‘a High School American history instructor.

Gardner, a union member since she started teaching on Kaua‘i more than two decades ago, said the vote will reflect whether teachers agree that the compensation offered is, in fact, a raise and not just a cost of living adjustment.

“If anyone would like to come and walk in my shoes to see if we deserve the money, I wholeheartedly welcome them,” Gardner said.

Jo Thompson, who has taught at Kilauea Elementary for the past 12 years, agrees that the focus should be on the raise, which she said doesn’t match the rate of inflation or the challenges of the job.

“You wouldn’t believe the stuff we go through,” she said.

Thompson, who has a total of 19 years’ experience teaching and a master’s degree, said the random testing clause should have been proposed separately from wages, especially since it is a non-negotiable point for the state. And she doesn’t think teachers should be singled out.

“I understand where the governor is coming from,” Thompson said, “but is her staff being tested and are all government employees being tested?”

Marie Laderta, director of the Human Resources Development Department, negotiates contracts on behalf of the state for the teachers, police officers, firefighters, government employees, public workers and police unions. She served as chief negotiator in talks with the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association and said finalizing the deal hinges upon the union’s vote to accept or reject.

If the union rejects the contract as is this week, it could return to the bargaining table, pursue arbitration or strike, Laderta said. Should the union and the state return to negotiations, funding for any future agreements would have to be approved by the Legislature early next year when it reconvenes. Retroactive pay increases for the school year beginning this August would not be guaranteed but could be negotiated into the contract.

Once the issue is settled, Human Resources Development will begin preparing as early as the end of this year for the next round of contract negotiations.

Laderta said many of the contracts are set at two years because of the administration’s preference, not by law.

“The governor wants to be prudent and take two years at a time,” Laderta said.

Approximately 99 percent of Kaua‘i’s 725 teachers are union members, according to the Kaua‘i office.

Voting on-island last week took place at polling stations at Kapa‘a, Waimea and Kaua‘i high schools. According to Perry, there was a strong turnout.

Certified results from the union-wide vote, including absentee ballots, will be announced today, between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.

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