Could the state and the teachers union be trying to work out a deal to end their labor dispute?

The scene at the Hawaii Labor Relations Board Thursday — one day after the federal government issued a harsh warning to the state about its $75 million Race to the Top grant — was unlike anything that’s happened until now.

The planned witness, state Budget Director Kalbert Young, never took the stand.

Instead, the parties privately huddled — sometimes together, sometimes just with their own side — for about an hour before HLRB Chairman Jim Nicholson announced that the hearing would resume Jan. 5. HSTA attorney Herb Takahashi and HSTA President Wil Okabe appeared focused as they shuffled back and forth between the hearing room and a private hallway. They were quick to pack up and leave afterward.

The federal Department of Education in a letter to Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Wednesday slammed the state’s lack of progress in implementing proposed education reforms. The drawn-out labor complaint is jeopardizing the grant, because it’s holding back the state’s ability to live up to key promises.

Nicholson had started the 1:30 hearing by calling for a bench conference with just the union and the state’s representatives. The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly — an intervener in the case — could stay, while this reporter and HLRB staff were told to step outside the room.

The door opened less than 10 minutes later. Takahashi, Okabe and another HSTA attorney headed for a hallway to speak privately.

When the trio returned to the hearing room, Nicholson and HLRB member Rock Ley were booted, along with the university’s union representatives, leaving the two parties alone.

A few minutes later, the HSTA trio headed back to the hallway.

HSTA then asked to meet privately with Nicholson and Ley in the hearing room. Following that conversation, Nicholson announced the hearing would resume next month.

When asked what was going on, Nicholson said he can’t comment on any aspects of the case, likening himself to a judge overseeing a trial.

Okabe did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

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