HONOLULU - Hawaii's teachers union has embarked on the unprecedented move of asking its members to revisit a contract they rejected earlier this year, as part of an effort to prevent the state from losing a $75 million federal grant it received to carry out education reforms.
Wil Okabe, the president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said Thursday that asking members to vote again on a contract they dismissed in January wasn't a decision the union's negotiators and board arrived at lightly.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie indicated, however, that the negotiating teams would need to update the once-scorned agreement, as it's no longer valid. He wrote the union saying his negotiating team looked forward to crafting an agreement that "is clear, current, and correct."
Okabe said the contract offer was the best the teachers would get. Further, without it, the union won't have a say as the state develops new teacher evaluations reflecting student performance, he said.
"HSTA feels strongly that the January tentative agreement is a good one and that teachers should have an opportunity to reconsider it," Okabe said in an email to The Associated Press.
"We feel that with more time and more information, our members can learn more about this good and viable agreement."
The state Board of Education last month approved policies to move ahead in the creation of new assessments of how teachers are doing in the classroom.
"This contract will provide an opportunity for HSTA to be at the table to develop evaluation tools for our teachers," Okabe said.
Abercrombie responded to Okabe by saying his chief negotiator was ready to meet as scheduled Monday to address any necessary revisions to the contract voted on in January.
In a separate statement to news media, Abercrombie said his attorney general told him the contract has "no legal standing." He noted that the union submitted a new proposal to the government in February that it hasn't withdrawn.
The 13,000-member union resoundingly rejected the contract, 67 percent to 33 percent, in January.
Okabe told the governor of the union's plan in a letter dated Wednesday. He said the union was acting to prevent the state from losing "Race to the Top" grant money.
The U.S. Department of Education last year told Hawaii it was failing to satisfactorily implement reforms and warned the state that it could lose the grant money if it didn't improve.
One of Hawaii's biggest shortcomings has been its failure to include student performance when evaluating teachers and determining teacher compensation, as its grant application said it would. The proposed contract would allow Hawaii to do that.
"We have an unquestionable mutual interest to secure the federal grant for the benefit of Hawaii's children," Okabe's letter said.
Okabe told the governor the union rushed its ratification vote the first time around. He noted that a union member poll conducted by the Castle Foundation indicated that teachers felt they didn't have enough information and time to consider the contract before they cast their ballots.
He said the union plans informational meetings with teachers throughout the state to make sure they have the information they need this time.
Okabe sent another letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan telling him about the revote and asking that the department delay its decision on the status of Hawaii's Race to the Top grant.
Teachers commenting on the union's Facebook page were mostly critical of the decision, but some said they would vote for the contract.
Okabe said he was looking to a teachers union in Baltimore as an example.
In October 2010, 58 percent of the more than 2,000 teachers in the Baltimore Teachers Union voted against a new contract. But members ratified the agreement when the union held another vote the following month after the leaders held meetings at schools to explain it.
"That's exactly what we intend to do," Okabe said.
Hawaii was one of 11 states and the District of Columbia to win more than $4 billion in Race to the Top grants in 2010. The Hawaii Department of Education is the nation's 10th largest school system and the only statewide district in the country.
The education community has been watching closely to see how aggressively the department will enforce the terms of the competition.