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Hawaii Teachers, State Settle 20-Day Strike

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Under threat of federal intervention, Hawaii’s public school teachers and the state settled a 20-day strike Tuesday that had kept 183,000 children out of class, frazzled parents and drained teachers’ pocketbooks across the state.

“This has been a tremendous struggle, but we’ve all come out of it unified,” said Karen Ginoza, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Assn. “This is a good contract. It will help us to compete on a national level. I’d like to say thank you to the teachers, the 99% who have stood tall and strong.”

With the exception of one school on the tiny island of Niihau and a few charter schools, every public school in Hawaii--kindergarten through 12th grade--has been closed since April 5. Only 1% of the union’s nearly 13,000 members crossed picket lines statewide, even as the strike dragged into its third week.

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“I would have stayed out until next year, that’s how strongly I felt,” said Gerald Kimura, a 31-year Honolulu teacher who had expected the strike to last just a few days. “There’s a point where you can only go forward.”

Faculty members at the University of Hawaii’s 10 campuses went on strike the same day as the primary and secondary school teachers. But they settled their differences with the state last week and already had returned to work. The simultaneous strikes were the most far-reaching the country has ever seen, virtually shutting down Hawaii’s public education system from kindergarten through graduate school.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra had threatened to intervene Tuesday morning and appoint a receiver to take over the school system to restore educational services to special-needs children. He had authority to do so under a federal consent decree that mandates the state to improve services to those children by December. But the union board and state officials reached agreement at midnight Monday, just hours before his deadline.

On Tuesday, teachers pasted “mahalo"--the Hawaiian word for “thank you"--over their picket signs and cast ballots on the proposed agreement, which is likely to be approved. Teachers would ultimately be paid from $33,000 to $64,000 annually under the new contract, and professional development efforts would be increased. Teacher salaries currently range from $29,000 to $58,000.

“We believe it will place us among the top 10 highest salaries for teachers in the nation,” said Gov. Ben Cayetano. “I was impressed by the resolve of our teachers. I hope that spirit, energy and commitment will blossom in our schools, and I know it will.”

The two-year contract would provide a 4% across-the-board pay hike during the 2001-02 school year and a 6% raise the following year--plus onetime payments totaling $1,100 per teacher to compensate them for the two years that they have worked without a contract. It also would provide for incremental raises for teachers, according to seniority. Teachers with master’s degrees would get an additional 3% wage hike. Those with doctorates would get 6%.

The new contract would also convert four instructional days to professional development days and launch a mentoring program in which senior teachers would help improve the skills of their colleagues. The union’s 1997 contract had added seven instructional days to the school year.

“This contract focuses much more heavily on professional development,” Cayetano said. “It is better to have teachers who are well trained and better skilled--even if they lose four days” in the classroom.

If the contract is approved, the teachers will return to school today. Students report back Thursday, three weeks after their impromptu vacation began.

It is not soon enough for struggling parents. Many have been shelling out $20 a day or more for child care, leaning on relatives and neighbors or bringing their kids with them to work.

“I’m just happy it’s settled,” said Eden Zamarin, a single mom with a “very active 7-year-old” and no family in the islands. “It gets to a point where it’s such a strain on the parents.” She wound up bringing her son to her office at the Nuuanu YMCA when she couldn’t line up child care.

Even some children seemed pleased. “I’m glad we get to go back to school,” said Brittney Jacobson, a red-haired third-grader tooling around Honolulu’s Booth District Park on her scooter. “But I bet we’re going to have to do lots of work.”

Despite the hassles, teachers on the picket lines said they were overwhelmed by the community’s support. Honks from passersby never let up, and parents inundated them with donations of food and drinks. “They probably gained weight with all the food they had,” chuckled Ginoza, the teachers’ union president.

The teachers said they held out so long because they need more money to offset Hawaii’s high cost of living and cope with a nationwide teacher shortage. “I think it was worth it,” said Kay Chin, a longtime teacher at Pauoa Elementary School in Honolulu. “It made a statement to the community. There’s a new value placed on public education as a whole.”


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