Teacher on contract: Devil is in the details

A few Maui teachers willing to speak on the record Monday about a tentative contract agreement with the state were positive but cautious.

A half-dozen teachers preferred not to comment, saying they had not had the time to review details in the four-year deal struck over the weekend by the state and the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

“As usual, the devil is in the details,” said Kalama Intermediate School special education teacher Karolyn Mossman, a former HSTA officer. “It looks pretty good on the surface.”

She said she hopes the new contract will help lift low teacher morale.

“I’m hoping the teachers will see something positive coming forward for them,” she said.

HSTA President Wil Okabe said the new deal restores a previous 5 percent pay cut and gives teachers a 3 percent raise on top of that in July. Teachers will get raises of 3 percent and 3.2 percent in following years, he said.

Preliminarily, it looks like salary increases are a “little bit” of an improvement, Mossman said.

“It’s not where it needs to be, but it’s definitely going in the right direction,” she said.

Maui Waena Intermediate School counselor Ed Garcia said he was “very excited” about the tentative contract.

“I believe the state recognizes we’re professionals who deserve a fair and decent contract,” he said, adding that he hopes a living wage would help recruit and retain teachers.

Fourth-grade teacher Alan Isbell, the head faculty representative at Wailuku Elementary School, said he believes that teachers will approve the proposed contract.

“Everybody’s really tired of these protracted negotiations,” he said. “Everybody just wants it to be over. I think it could be acceptable to most teachers. . . . I think they’ll ratify it.”

Two of the reasons a proposed contract was rejected before were that teachers didn’t have enough time to digest the proposal, and they didn’t want to commit to a six-year contract, Isbell said.

This new labor agreement is for four years, he said, and the contract can be reopened by the union only for higher wages in two years.

With a restored 5 percent pay cut and pay increases over the four years of the contract, most teachers would see an 18.6 percent pay hike over the course of the contract, Isbell said. Some teachers in top classifications with the most seniority would see increases of 22.3 percent, he added.

Isbell said the new contract would take some of the sting out of trying to make a living in high-cost Hawaii.

“I know teachers who’ve had to leave because they just can’t make it financially,” he said.

Hawaii salaries for teachers still won’t be competitive with what Mainland teachers get paid, but they would be an improvement, he said.

Kamali’i Elementary School counselor Vern Dahl said that in the past four years, teachers have lost pay through furloughs and cuts in salaries. That lost pay has been “a pretty severe hit,” he said.

Dahl, an 18-year veteran of the Hawaii school system, said he would vote for the proposed contract, as would most teachers.

“They’ve been hit so hard in the last four years,” he said. “They’ve got to recover something.”

Hawaii’s teachers union has set an April 17 date to vote on the new contract.

Union officials said on the association’s Facebook page early Monday that teachers will be able to review the contract and ask questions at information sessions before the vote. The union also posted a link to the 106-page agreement.

The teachers’ last contract expired in June 2011. Teachers voted down a contract offer in January 2012, then tried to pressure the state into accepting it by later voting on it again and passing it.

The sides sought the help of a federal mediator this month.

“We’ve worked very hard to get to this point, and we remain committed to providing teachers with necessary resources and support to achieve our strategic goals,” said Kathryn Matayoshi, superintendent of the state Department of Education.

Okabe said the deal takes steps toward restoring the previous percentages that teachers would pay of their insurance premiums.

“I believe that the reason we have a tentative agreement in large part is because of the ongoing pressure teachers put on the employer to settle the contract in the best interests of teachers and students,” Okabe said in a letter to teachers.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie said at a news conference Sunday night that the state would be able to fully fund the deal.

* Brian Perry can be reached at The Associated Press contributed to this story.