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New contract gains backing from teachers

May 24, 2012

HONOLULU - Hawaii's teachers union has approved a new contract that members overwhelmingly rejected earlier this year.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the contract was ratified with two-thirds of the vote.

"It's 180 degrees from the last vote," he said of teachers approving the contract, 66 percent to 34 percent.

Okabe would not provide the exact breakdown of the vote but said turnout was about the same as in January, when teachers rebuffed the contract. Teachers had been voting online and by telephone since last Tuesday.

Rejection of the contract would have authorized union leaders to call for a strike.

It's not clear whether the state will accept the union vote. Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie had insisted January's agreement is no longer valid and new negotiations are required.

"As we told our teachers to reconsider this, we hope the governor will also reconsider his position," Okabe said.

Any potential agreement must be settled in collective bargaining, the governor's office said Wednesday.

"We will certainly take the results into account if and when HSTA decides to return to collective bargaining," Abercrombie said in a statement. The state said the union had turned down requests to return to the bargaining table.

Officials on both sides hope a new deal will prevent Hawaii from losing $75 million in a federal Race to the Top grant for education reform. Okabe said that he has notified U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan of the vote result. The U.S. Department of Education has warned that the money could be taken away if improved progress isn't made on promised reforms, including using student performance when evaluating teachers and determining compensation. The evaluations have been a sticking point in the contract, with some teachers critical of the evaluations.

"It is our sincere hope that the step we took today will mean a better future for Hawaii's children," Okabe said.

Okabe credited the "largest comprehensive education campaign in our history," for the newfound acceptance of the contract. He said teachers had complained of a lack of information about details, so union leaders held various informational meetings prior to the vote.

Some teachers have said they rejected the contract in January because of a continued 5 percent pay cut and because basing evaluations on student performance unfairly asks too much of teachers.

In reconsidering the contract, the union stressed to members that it's the best deal they can get.



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