The Hawaii State Teachers Association‘s sudden decision Wednesday to put a rejected contract up for a re-vote by its members caught many off guard.

Publicly, union leaders have said they’re trying to help keep Hawaii from losing roughly $73 million in federal grant money. Federal officials are planning to make a decision on the state’s Race to the Top grant status as soon as next week.

But school officials say it’s more complex. The governor has said the January contract offer is no longer on the table. There are concerns that a “no” vote could authorize a strike. And challenge to the current agreement before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board remains unresolved.

“I’m as curious as everybody else in why they’re doing this,” said former HSTA Executive Director Joan Husted.

On Wednesday, HSTA President Wil Okabe sent letters to the governor and the U.S. education secretary explaining the move.

“This decision is driven by the urgency to preserve the $75 million Race to the Top grant for Hawaii,” Okabe wrote to Gov. Neil Abercrombie. “Much of the reason the U.S. DOE placed Hawaii’s Race to the Top grant on ‘high risk status’ was the lack of a collective bargaining agreement to demonstrate true stakeholder support.”

The U.S. Department of Education has warned Hawaii that the state could lose what’s left of its Race to the Top grant if the contract issue goes unresolved much longer. Teachers have been operating under a “last, best, final offer” since July when the governor imposed it.

Okabe asked the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday to “delay its decision” on Hawaii’s grant status.

But House Education Chair Roy Takumi said there’s a bigger concern.

“We need a contract that one, teachers think is fair; two, that we can afford; and three, that works in the best interest of students,” he said.

While $73 million in Race to the Top money could be lost, that amount is a fraction of Hawaii’s overall education budget. The Legislature wrapped up its session Thursday, providing $1.03 billion just for regular education costs next year.

Saving face is also likely a big motivator behind the union leadership’s request for a re-vote.

Numerous states have sought a slice of the Obama administration’s $4 billion school reform pie, but Hawaii is the only state on “high risk status.”

National education experts say clipping the Aloha State would send a strong message that the country is actually serious about improving education.

“HSTA shares an unquestionable mutual interest with our employers to remove Hawaii from ‘high risk status,'” Okabe wrote in his letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “A demonstration of true stakeholder support will be the finalizing of our collective bargaining agreement.”

But even if teachers ratify the January contract, the governor doesn’t have to honor it.

“According to the Attorney General the agreement which was rejected in January 2012 has no legal standing,” Abercrombie said in a statement.

He emphasized that the re-vote decision was “an internal union action in which we have had no participation.”

The governor said the ongoing negotiations have been based on HSTA’s Feb. 28 proposal, which is still on the table, and the state’s March 19 settlement offer.

Regardless, Okabe said teachers should still have an opportunity to reconsider the January settlement offer.

“We feel that with more time and more information, our members can learn more about this good and viable agreement,” he said. “Time is of the essence because of the Race to the Top grant.”

Jim Halvorson of the Attorney General’s Office said if the union ratifies the January contract and the state wanted to consider it, both parties would probably have to meet.

“There might be some things in the agreement that due to the passage of time have been rendered moot and would have to be updated,” he said.

Halvorson represents the state in HSTA’s case before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board. He said Thursday morning’s hearing in the months-long case was canceled partly because witnesses weren’t available.

HSTA only plans to call two more witnesses, Okabe and Ray Camacho, the union’s negotiations specialist. They are expected to take the stand when the quasi-judicial proceedings continue next week.

‘To Pursue Other Action’

Okabe’s letter to Abercrombie said the HSTA Board of Directors decided to hold a vote to ratify the January settlement “or to pursue other action.”

Some teachers have interpreted “other action” to mean authorizing a strike.

Joan Lewis, HSTA treasurer and a member of the negotiations team, confirmed that the union is “out of options.”

“I am more than ready to talk to you about why this contract was and is worth your yes vote,” she said in a Facebook post on the union’s website. “If I cannot give you the information you need to vote for the contract, then I will be happy to act on your vote to authorize a strike.”

Senate Education Chair Jill Tokuda said she too has heard that “other action” means a strike.

“I presume HSTA will be asking its members what their views are on those other actions,” she said. “A lot of questions need answers.”

Big Island teacher Paul Daugherty, who is running for HSTA president against Okabe, has been part of the negotiations team for years.

“I think teachers, once they understand the facts that led up to this decision, I think they’ll understand why it needs to happen,” Daugherty said Thursday.

Long-time Hawaii educators and school officials say a strike would not enjoy the same broad public support it had in 2001. With summer break fast approaching, they also questioned what impact a strike could have this school year.

Finding A ‘Remedy’

Okabe acknowledges in his letters that the union “rushed a ratification vote” of the January proposal.

Polling revealed teachers shot down the contract because the union failed to explain its contents. They didn’t want to vote for something they didn’t understand, particularly the teacher evaluation component. Read more about what the January tentative agreement entails by clicking here.

Okabe said HSTA members “lacked the information and time to consider the agreement.”

The union has planned nearly four dozen meetings for members around the state, starting Monday. The re-vote will take place after this process wraps up May 17.

Husted said she was surprised that teachers turned down the contract in January. But the former HSTA executive director was even more shocked to learn that 66 percent had voted against it.

The closest margin she recalled prior to that was a two-to-one “yes” vote in the 1970s. Since then, she said the margins of passage have been closer to 10 to 1.

She called the union’s unprecedented decision to hold a re-vote a “bold step,” encouraging the teachers to support it.

“I don’t want to think about what would happen if it gets turned down again,” Husted said. “The teachers ought to ratify this. It’s a viable option to where they are now.”

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