By JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER and OSKAR GARCIA
HONOLULU — Hawaii’s public school teachers overwhelmingly approved a new labor agreement on Wednesday night, their first in nearly two years since their last contract expired.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association said 70 percent of teachers voted in statewide polls Wednesday night — nearly all in favor of the four-year deal.
Union President Wil Okabe said the goal was to provide an equitable and fair contract that will attract the best teachers.
“Through sign waving, emails, letters and phone calls, HSTA members have shown unwavering commitment to education, putting pressure on the State to settle the contract in the best interests of the teachers and their students,” Okabe said in a statement.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie praised the agreement as a “positive milestone” for public education in the state.
“We can now move forward as partners in transforming education for the benefit of our students and the entire state,” Abercrombie 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. They’ll also have a say in statewide decisions about evaluations.
The contract takes effect July 1. The last contract expired in June 2011, and teachers have been working under a 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. Many teachers are skeptical about evaluations, which have been a sticking point in the contract. Teachers are critical about using student performance in evaluations and determining compensation.
This vote comes after teachers rejected a contract offer last year. Then, in an unusual move, they tried to pressure the state to accept it later by voting on it again and approving it, 66 percent to 34 percent.
The union held several information sessions on details of the deal since the union and the state came to an agreement last month, after seeking help from a federal mediator.
Mililani High School teacher Amy Perruso planned to vote in favor of the deal, but not wholeheartedly.
“I feel really ambivalent,” she said. “I think a lot of teachers feel as though they really don’t have any viable options.”
She said she continues to have doubts that the state can properly implement an effective and fair evaluation system.
Evaluations will “increase the anxiety levels of teachers who do the hardest work, the teachers who work with students who are struggling,” she said. “The students who are best supported and best prepared for school, for the most part, go to private schools.”
Okabe said teachers need to understand evaluations aren’t only based on test scores and that the new deal allows for teachers to be part of the committee that crafts the evaluation system.
“This evaluation system will address how we can improve teaching in Hawaii,” he said. “Evaluations should not be something we should be looking at as a punitive measure.”
While some schools are already using evaluations under a pilot program, most teachers will see them starting in the 2015 school year. Teachers fresh out of college will be evaluated starting in July, Okabe said.
Okabe said another attractive feature of the deal is the health insurance language. He said it represents savings of at least 20 percent, depending on the plan a teacher selects.
Teachers are now too tired to fight and can’t afford to strike, Perruso said.
“We’ll have a contract,” she said. “In that sense, it’s better than no contract.”
The agreement needed 50 percent plus one votes to be ratified.