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Baker, McKelvey respond to cries for action on teacher furloughs

By Staff | Oct 22, 2009

Parents and students led a demonstration last week Thursday along Honoapiilani Highway at Lahaina Cannery Mall to protest Furlough Fridays and call for a special legislative session to increase funding for schools. Second-grader Hannah Goodwin (right) sang a jingle — “Think about our education; we want no vacation” — to Sen. Roz Baker (second from right) and the 40 or so people participating in the rally. Photo by Norm Bezane.

WEST MAUI — Sen. Roz Baker and Rep. Angus McKelvey think there are better solutions than furloughing teachers for 17 Fridays this school year to help the state save money in its current budget crisis.

Baker (D-Fifth District) offered up what amounts to a six-point plan to find funds to support education and stressed the need to resize government. 

McKelvey (D-Tenth District) called upon Gov. Linda Lingle to release $180 million in the Hawaii Hurricane Relief Fund (HHRF), “to plug the holes in the education budget, so that we don’t have to turn to furloughs to make up the budget shortfall.” 

He called for a special session of the legislature and described furloughing teachers as “a brutal development that will put incredible strain on families” during difficult economic times.

Baker said Lingle, the state Board of Education (BOE) and the Hawaii Legislature need to step up and tackle this issue.

The former chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee outlined six needs for change:

1) BOE should  “rethink the school calendar — eliminate some of the intercession days, consider extending the school day an hour or so each day and still allow a four-day week if that will produce additional savings. Creative ways need to be developed to solve the issue and provide the necessary instruction,” Baker commented.

2) The BOE needs to expedite processes to allow schools to substitute waiver days as furlough days and keep instructional days.

3) The governor should seek funds available under an education provision in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

4) Lingle should cease cutting staff and programs that generate funds for the state and our economy.

5) The legislature should continue its oversight work and talk with the public and public employees on ways to grow the economy and resize government.

6) The state, with the support of the legislature, needs to reduce the number of paid state holidays, streamline processes to collect unpaid taxes owed to the state, think about increasing the general excise tax (while exempting food and medical services) to generate additional revenue for essential services and consider passing legislation that requires no less than 180 instructional days per year.  

Baker said legislators are working on proposals to reduce the impact of furloughs. Ideas could be considered in a special legislative session or in 2010. 

Amid growing disenchantment by teachers and protests by parents concerning the twice-monthly furloughs, McKelvey said legislators to-date have been reluctant to call a special session.

He noted, “While it is true that we could call ourselves back into special session, it would be pointless to reconvene ourselves and spend the money for a session without the support of the governor, because she could veto any of the measures we pass,” or refuse to release funds for bills passed in the session.

However, if Lingle called the session with proposals in mind, “Any bills passed out would be signed into law, and the monies released as quickly as possible,” he said.

Releasing hurricane fund monies makes sense, because the fund was never intended to be used over a long term, McKelvey claimed. 

He quoted former Insurance Commissioner Linda Chu Takayama, who helped author the hurricane bill, that its intent  “was to temporarily stabilize the market by funding the rewrite of policies when insurers left Hawaii after Hurricane Iniki.” 

McKelvey said a number of insurers have since reentered the market. He believes the governor has the power to utilize these funds for an educational purpose without convening the legislature. 

If a special session convenes, HHRF money could be replaced with bonds to cover worst case hurricane scenarios, he said.

The West Maui representative feels fast action is needed. It’s not acceptable for “our children to be forced to have their education curriculum short-circuited. For the long term, the furloughs will erode the quality of our educational system severely,” he said.

Parents will also suffer, as “they are already having a hard time paying for or finding day care, so that they can work. Parents are going to have to tighten their belts even more to pay for the additional day care, if they can find it,” he concluded.

As Hawaii’s public schools prepare for the first “Furlough Friday” on Oct. 23, Hawaii Board of Education Chairman Garrett Toguchi detailed his position.

“Hawaii’s public school students, parents and residents became upset and concerned after learning teachers had ratified a new two-year contract that will lead to 17 fewer school days per year.

“They also clearly voiced their frustration with the parties that settled on the contract.

“If teachers, the Board and Department of Education, the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the governor cared about students, they have asked, why weren’t waiver days, holidays, or vacation used for furloughs? Why aren’t expenditures being cut elsewhere in the Education Department before we shortchange students? How about a straight pay cut for teachers?

“Four months ago, when the State Council on Revenues projected Hawaii’s economy fared much worse than expected, I cautioned that any more cuts (to public education) would dramatically impact school operations.

“Four days later, Governor Lingle reduced the Education Department’s budget by an additional $270.3 million, or the equivalent of 36 furlough days a year, to close the budget gap.

“To preserve school funding, the board proposed that the governor and the legislature tap the estimated $40 million Rainy Day fund, the $185 million Hawaii Hurricane Relief Fund, which has outlived its purpose, or enact a slight, temporary raise in the general excise tax until the economy rebounded. As early as June 19, I publicly warned schools could lose 13 or more days if nothing was done.

“As unions challenged the governor’s furlough directive, the board and the department faced the overwhelming task of determining how to maintain educational services with a $468 million shortfall over two years. Given that only five percent of the department’s $1.8 billion budget is spent on administration, it was clear that schools and students would be impacted.

“With limited opportunities to raise revenue, the board wrestled with proposals to increase meal and bus prices to offset some of the shortfall, being mindful that fees would not bring in enough money and place an extra burden on families.

“In July, with lawmakers showing no interest in a special session and school administrators anxious for a budget to welcome students for a new academic year, the board had to act. We reduced expenditures by $226.8 million by streamlining programs, eliminating more than 239 positions, closing Wailupe Valley School, and reducing funds for materials and equipment, in order to protect instructional days. Of that amount, $117.4 million would have to come from labor savings.

“After debating various options during collective bargaining, the board worked with the Education Department, the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the governor to come up with a contract that minimizes disruptions to school operations, keeps people employed and focused on educating students. Settling on the contract was a very difficult decision, but one that was necessary to meet the unprecedented budget cutback imposed on our schools.

“While the contract has led to a fervent public outcry, I have been encouraged by individuals and community organizations who have demonstrated just as much passion in offering help to care for our students.

“It has been just as inspiring — though not surprising — to witness principals and teachers immediately start to brainstorm ways to address the reduction in instructional time. Teachers, who may now struggle to make a mortgage or student loan payment after taking an 8 percent pay cut, are busy voting on changes to schedules, preparing lessons or extra credit opportunities and activities to cover all their lessons and prevent furloughs from disrupting student learning.

“I thank them, and I hope Hawaii residents will join my call to have the state utilize special funds or raise revenue to restore the resources that our teachers and students deserve.”