Hilo teachers express relief over contract agreement


By COLIN M. STEWART

Tribune-Herald staff writer

East Hawaii teachers said Thursday that they were pleased with the contract ratified the previous evening by the membership of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. While it contains some concessions to the financially strapped state, it also reinstates salary increases and does away with furlough days, two points the HSTA was adamant about during a long, and at times frustrating, process.

“I’m happy and ultimately think it’s a good contract,” said Hilo High counselor Casey Carpenter. “But, I didn’t think it needed to be dragged out that long, and I was not happy about the ‘last, best and final offer.’”

Carpenter referred to a move made in July 2011 by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, in which he imposed a “last, best and final offer” on HSTA members following the expiration of their previous contract. It resulted in cuts to pay and increases in teachers’ health care costs. The move soured many teachers across the state, who said they felt betrayed after supporting the governor in force during his election bid.

Matthew Yarberry, head of Hilo High’s social studies department, said Thursday afternoon that he wasn’t sure whether he would be able to vote for Abercrombie again after the events of the negotiations, but he did feel like the new labor agreement goes a long way toward answering teacher concerns.

“Mostly though, I’m relieved that we finally just have a contract. We’ve been working without a contract for four years, and anything will help,” he said.

Approximately 70 percent of teachers turned out to vote in statewide polls Wednesday night, with nearly all of them in favor of the four-year deal.

It would restore a previous 5 percent pay cut and give 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.

“I’m really glad we got our 5 percent pay cut back. A lot of people didn’t even know we had given that up,” Yarberry said. “But we did. Our families did. … I know my wife did. … We had to pay a lot of things out of pocket. It adds up.”

Agriculture teacher Steve Nemeth said he, too, was happy to see teacher salaries going back up after a long dry spell.

“We were really glad to see that they gave us an 8 percent pay raise right off the bat,” he said. “After four years of foot dragging, it happened really fast. It was really sudden.”

Also stipulated by the new contract, teachers would have a say in statewide decisions about evaluations. The issue of teacher evaluations had been a sticky one during the negotiations, with teachers being critical about using student performance in evaluations and determining compensations. But those Hilo High teachers the Tribune-Herald spoke with Thursday said that they had never been completely opposed to evaluations, they just wanted to ensure they had a say in the process.

“Getting feedback is good. It’s good for us, and it’s good for students. It’s what students need,” said Jennifer Perry, who teaches physical science and plants at the school. “It makes us happier, better teachers. The kids want to see us happier.”

Yarberry added that keeping “dead wood” on staff isn’t good for anyone, so having an evaluation system in play can only help both teachers and students.

“Not everybody should be a teacher,” he said. “There’s gotta be a way to get rid of dead wood.”

The contract takes effect July 1. The last contract expired in June 2011, and teachers have been working under the last, best and final offer.

Educators nationwide have been paying attention to what happens in Hawaii — the 10th largest school system in the nation and the only statewide district in the country — as Hawaii grapples with the controversial issue of educator evaluations.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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