Posted tagged ‘education’

HSTA can’t get its affidavits straight

September 9, 2011

The Hawaii State Teachers Association has received a stinging rebuke from the Hawaii State Labor Relations Board in its prohibited practices case against the state for implementing its “last, best and final” contract offer.

In July, HSTA filed an amended motion for interlocutory relief and tried to strike the state’s declarations of opposition on the sworn claim of HSTA attorney Rebecca Covert that Deputy Attorney James Halvorson’s affidavit didn’t contain the required statement that it was made “under penalty of law” or “under penalty of perjury.”

After an investigation, the HLRB found that Halvorson’s declaration did contain the required statement — and that the HSTA’s Wil Okabe’s declaration on the same matter did not.

The HLRB’s Sept. 2 ruling against HSTA contained a harsh slap-down of the union’s lawyers:

“The material misstatements made by Ms. Covert in her sworn affidavit, which were not corrected by Mr. (Herbert) Takahashi at the August 10, 2011 Board hearing, demonstrate an egregious and reckless disregard for the truth in this case. These statements seem intended to mislead the Board … Notice is hearby given that conduct of this nature will not be tolerated by the Board.”

The matter appears technical, but some lawyers say it could be serious enough to land HSTA lawyers before disciplinary counsel.

In the bigger picture, it seems another example of the union’s chaotic and highly antagonistic approach to the case that has left HSTA with few friends, even among other public worker unions.

New twists in teachers contract dispute

August 18, 2011

The state Ethics Commission is likely to take more flak from high places for its advisory ruling that led Sesnita Moepono, one of three members of the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, to withdraw from the prohibited practices case involving the Hawaii State Teachers Association contract.

The ethics determination was pretty much a no-brainer; Moepono’s husband is a student services coordinator in the DOE and a member of HSTA, giving her a direct financial interest in the outcome of the union’s attempt to overturn a state-imposed contract that hits members with 5-percent pay cuts and increased medical premiums.

Moepono has been open about the conflict and her integrity is not in question, but the ethics law is clear: “No employee shall take any official action directly affecting … a business or other undertaking in which he has a substantial financial interest.”

With Moepono recused, the remaining board members, Chairman Jim Nicholson and Rock Ley, will decide the case.

The three members are appointed with one representing management, one representing labor and the other representing the public. Ironically, Moepono was appointed by Abercrombie as the management representative, while Ley is the labor representative and Nicholson the public representative.

Hearings on the prohibited practices case were supposed to start this week, but got sidetracked by HSTA’s complaint that Abercrombie and the DOE engaged in improper ex parte communication with the board.

Nicholson and Ley rejected that complaint today and rescheduled the start of hearings on the main complaint for Aug. 25.

Governor must answer, ‘Where’s the beef?’

August 17, 2011

In his speech today updating constituents on the status of his “New Day” program, Gov. Neil Abercrombie once again did an excellent job of describing the major challenges that Hawai‘i faces.

But he still hasn’t gotten to the hardest part — prescribing specific remedies that a critical mass of Hawai‘i residents will support despite the sacrifices they will certainly entail.

The governor basically declared that he has state finances in the black and the wheels of government aligned more to his liking and is now ready to focus on a “gathering storm” that threatens Hawai‘i’s  future.

He identified the five elements of the threat as the massive debt we face with some $22 billion in unfunded pension and medical benefits owed public workers, soaring healthcare costs, our over-reliance on outside energy and food, inadequate support for education and social services, and the potential for huge federal funding cuts.

His solution, as always, was his “New Day” plan to create jobs around a sustainable economy, invest in our children and make state government more efficient.

Abercrombie encouraged everybody to join in the sacrifices and took aim at Hawai‘i’s status quo that he was long seen as part of.

“The status quo insists that we conform to the way things have always been,” he said. “It is obsessed with illusory short-term gain at the expense of long-term stability. It favors the few. It outflanks the middle class, and it marginalizes those who need help the most. It questions and casts doubt upon new ideas. It stifles creativity and limits opportunity.”

It’s hard to argue with his logic, but the devil will be in the details — of which he offered few.

Abercrombie’s biggest problem is that he’s burned much of the political goodwill he had after landslide victories over Mufi Hannemann and James “Duke” Aiona.

Part of it was unavoidable, such as his necessarily tough stand in union negotiations that angered some of the noisiest labor and “progressive” elements of the Democratic Party.

Demanding that his political base make the same sacrifices as everybody else should have won him points with moderates and progressives who have always been suspicious of him.

But Abercrombie unnecessarily antagonized them with missteps such as his pointless tizzy fit on the Pro Bowl, his decision to shroud judicial appointments in secrecy for no good reason and a perceived arrogance exemplified by his infamous “I’m not your pal” remark.

He needs to smooth over some of the self-inflicted ill feelings and regain political capital so that next year he can face a Legislature that disregarded many of his ideas this year from a position of greater strength.

If he’s seen as weak and lacking public confidence, it’ll be everyone for themselves and he’ll get little cooperation on the shared sacrifices he seeks.

HSTA flounders in labor battle

August 17, 2011

The Hawaii State Teachers Association is making self-defeating moves in its legal fight to overturn a state-imposed contract that hits teachers with a 5-percent pay cut and a greater share of medical premiums.

The HSTA’s complaint to the state Ethics Commission that Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the Department of Education engaged in illegal ex parte communication with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board backfired when the labor board delayed hearings on the union’s prohibited practice complaint to instead hear evidence on the suggestions of bias.

That’s not what HSTA wanted at all; it was looking to take a political shot at Abercrombie and the DOE and instead winds up on the defensive explaining itself to an unamused labor board.

The ethics complaint, over a letter the employers sent to the labor board suggesting directed mediation to resolve the dispute, has even some labor lawyers scratching their heads.

The administration also sent a copy of the letter to the HSTA, making it difficult to sell an argument that the employers were operating behind the union’s back.

The other questionable move was issuing subpoenas to have top legislative leaders testify before the HLRB on the budget they passed in April that assumed a 5-percent pay cut for the teachers.

The union argues that this locked in the pay cut before negotiations concluded, denying the teachers their right to collective bargaining.

It’s another legal stretch. The Legislature often must pass a budget before all labor negotiations are done and makes its best guess on labor costs. If negotiations turn out differently, the budget is adjusted.

HSTA leaders are acting like they think they have already lost the legal battle and are instead fighting a clumsy PR war.

New hope in teachers’ labor dispute, or just hype?

August 8, 2011

It could be naive, but I’m going to take the offer of the Hawaii State Teachers Association to enter into mediation with the state in their continuing contract dispute as a sign of progress and not more posturing.

The teachers union is currently pursuing legal action against the state after Gov. Neil Abercrombie and schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi imposed the state’s “last, best and final” offer — a 5 percent pay cut and increased medical premiums — when negotiations hit an impasse.

It’s in nobody’s best interest to have the courts settle this dispute, and it’s encouraging that the union now says it’s open to mediation after the governor had said the same thing in informal comments last week on the Big Island.

According to Abercrombie, the state had reached a handshake agreement with HSTA negotiators along the lines of the contract imposed, only to have it rejected by the union’s board without putting it to a vote by teachers.

This suggests state and union negotiators were at least very close at one point, and it’s puzzling that HSTA never made a counteroffer stating its objections to what its negotiators had agreed to and indicating what it would take to satisfy the board.

Such a counteroffer should be the first step in any productive mediation process.

Cursive gets curt dismissal

August 2, 2011

Is anybody here greatly bothered that Hawai‘i public school students won’t be required to learn cursive writing under national core learning standards the Department of Education is adopting this year?

With students using keyboarding for more and more of their written communication, many schools are reducing emphasis on cursive to create time to teach higher priority subjects such as reading and math.

Critics complain that this will impede development of motor skills and make it impossible to read historical documents or take college exams that are written in script.

I respect the ancient arts as much as anybody, but we have to give the schools leeway in setting priorities or they’ll never have any. One of the problems in school reform has been endless mandates requiring the teaching of things there aren’t enough hours in the school day to teach.

I’ve made a living in written communication for more than 40 years, and except for my signature, I can’t remember the last time cursive was required of me. Historical documents are available in printed text on the Internet and it’s highly unlikely that today’s third-graders will ever have to take a college exam in cursive as tablet computers flood the campuses.

They get plenty of motor skill development from keyboarding, they’re plenty adept at block printing, and have you seen what some of those kids can do with their thumbs?

Each child can develop a personal cursive signature as an art project.

The new standards don’t bar the teaching of cursive, just make it a school-level decision rather than a universal requirement. That’s as it should be as we demand that schools focus on teaching the things most important for rich and rewarding lives.

Teachers play political card in contract dispute

July 28, 2011

The latest plea by the Hawaii State Teachers Association to get Gov. Neil Abercrombie back to the bargaining table seems more intended to step up political pressure on Abercrombie than to actually restart negotiations.

In a letter to Abercrombie, HSTA president Wil Okabe made blatant reference to the union’s campaign endorsement of Abercrombie and said, “I am now appealing to you as Neil — a person who I know is better able to resolve this matter than those to whom you have delegated too much authority.”

Suggesting that Abercrombie should abandon a contract offer he believes is in the best public interest to pay off a political debt isn’t likely a winning strategy.

The governor and Department of Education forced on teachers the state’s “last, best and final offer,” which involves a 5 percent pay cut and higher medical premiums, after reaching a handshake agreement with union negotiators only to have the deal voted down by the HSTA board.

If the union was serious about restarting negotiotions, it would do so not with press releases but with back-channel talks aimed at finding common ground for an agreement that could avert the legal battles now in motion.

Since HSTA rejected the state’s final offer, it’s the union’s move to make a workable counteroffer.

The union must face the reality that the state can’t give teachers better terms than the 5 percent pay cuts and higher insurance premiums accepted by the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state’s largest public union, or the same terms would have to be given to HGEA and bust the budget.

Further talks between the state and HSTA would likely be limited to other concessions the state could make to teachers without affecting the HGEA contract.

Keep up the pressure in schools

July 18, 2011

I appreciate the frustration in the public school system over the latest round of annual math and reading scores under the federal No Child Left Behind mandate.

Though math scores improved slightly and students held steady in reading, the number of schools meeting proficiency goals, called annual yearly progress, decreased because the goals got tougher this year.

It can give the false impression that the schools are doing worse than last year when student scores are actually a little better.

The frustration was perhaps best expressed by Kalani High School principal Mitchell Otani, who told the Star-Advertiser, “It is my hope that one day schools won’t be judged by one test, but will be judged by the quality of lives of the students we produce.”

I agree that the goals need to but more clearly delineated and reporting needs to be tweaked so parents and the community at large can more cleary grasp how the schools are doing.

But I don’t buy persistent calls to significantly ease up on demands and expectations as the perhaps unrealistic goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014 approaches.

Math and reading the two most basic — and objectively quantifiable — building blocks of a good education. Students who fall short in reading and math can’t excel in social studies and science, either.

If schools are graduating significant numbers of students who can’t read and do math to a minimum level of proficiency, if students have to take remedial courses to get into college and their career opportunities are limited, then quality of life is diminished and schools are underperforming on their most basic function.

Whatever its flaws, No Child Left Behind has been the main driving force in the last decade for gains made in a Hawai‘i school system that has historically resisted taking more accountability upon itself.

Until all elements of the school system embrace a culture of demanding accountability from within, we need the feds playing the bad cops.

Teachers talks got lost in sour tone

July 12, 2011

I found it fascinating that much of the complaint the Hawaii State Teachers Association filed with the Labor Relations Board over the Abercrombie administration imposing its “last, best and final offer” centered on hurt feelings over the tone of negotiations.

The Star-Advertiser story caught the gist of it in this passage:

HSTA’s complaint details eight months of tense negotiations, during which state chief negotiator Neil Dietz allegedly said in April that unless HSTA agreed to a 5 percent wage reduction, “lots of ‘nasty things can happen to your working conditions.’”

The same month, Dietz responded to an HSTA negotiating team member who asked for more time to consider the 5 percent wage reductions by cursing and hitting the table with his notebook, the filing alleges.

“He got up to leave and said if you don’t accept this, it will be 10 percent by the Legislature,” the complaint said.

The filing also said that in June, (Schools Superintendent Kathryn) Matayoshi told (HSTA leader Wil) Okabe that “if HSTA did not accept the 5 percent cuts, the Department of Education would need to cut 800 jobs, including probationary teachers.”

Despite all the talk we hear about “collaboration,” collective bargaining is an adversarial process that can get rough and tumble as the two sides jockey to find fair terms just short of the point where employees are willing to walk out on strike or the employer is willing to accept a strike.

While negotiators are usually best off when they keep their cool, the tactics ascribed to Dietz and Matayoshi are not beyond the bounds of the acceptable; I’ve heard a lot tougher talk in private-sector labor negotiations.

If an employer needs savings from labor costs and can’t get employees to accept less pay, the only options are to reduce the number of employees or achieve savings by changing working conditions. Pointing out this reality isn’t hitting below the belt.

When Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced his chief labor negotiator would be Dietz, a union guy who previously served as port agent for the Seafarers, many thought public workers would be in for smooth sailing.

But I suspected the going could get rough based on the view of some private-sector union leaders that their counterparts in the public unions are a bunch of privileged wimps.

This divide seems to be playing out in the teachers’ talks.

Here’s the full text of the HSTA complaint, and the governor’s office yesterday issued its own detailed view of how talks broke down. They make for interesting comparison.

Give the kids a place at the table in school contract talks

July 6, 2011

It’s disappointing that the stalled contract negotiations between the state and public school teachers appear to be focused entirely on pay and benefits, with little discussion of promised reforms to improve student learning.

After the furlough Fridays fiasco, the Legislature tried to mollify angry parents with new laws requiring a minimum of 180 instruction days a year and more hours of the school day devoted to instruction.

In its successful application for a $75 million federal “Race to the Top” grant, the Department of Education and unions representing teachers and principals promised to immediately work toward performance-based contracts for teachers and principals based in large part on improving the poor performance of Hawai‘i  students in standardized national tests.

From what his been disclosed publicly, these issues have not been significantly addressed in negotiations between the state and teachers union, which hit an impasse over the state’s demand that teachers take a 5 percent pay cut and pay a bigger share of their medical premiums.

Nor were these reforms a significant part of earlier state negotiations with the Hawaii Government Employees Association, in which the principals accepted the pay and health insurance terms teachers balked at.

Admittedly, recessionary times that require pay cuts to balance the state budget aren’t the best environment to seek more work and accountability from teachers and principals, but neither is a bad economy a license to abandon promises both sides have made to put a structure in place to better achieve the mission of the public schools.

We always say that the school system in first and foremost about the needs of the kids. When it comes down to brass tacks, however, it always seems to be more about what’s in it for the adults.

I look more closely at the standoff on the teachers contract in my column in today’s Star-Advertiser, “Teachers union should settle contract mess outside of court.”


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