The U.S. Department of Education may hold the governor responsible for the fact that Hawaii’s lagging on Race to the Top goals, but Gov. Neil Abercrombie puts the blame on union leaders.

“It’s being held up by people who have another agenda — a personal agenda, having to do with the internal politics of the union,” Abercrombie told Hawaii Public Radio’s Beth-Ann Kozlovich Thursday night on “Town Square.” (Read a complete transcript of his lengthy remarks at the bottom of this story.)

“To see a situation in which the internal politics — internal politics of an organization, union or otherwise — is actually undermining the very mission and purpose for which they’re organized, is a very sad thing.”

The governor also said, “If the conclusion of the HSTA leadership is that they do not want to have Race to the Top…then they’ll have to take the responsibility for it.”

The federal education department notified Abercrombie in December that Hawaii had been placed on “high-risk status” in the federal grant program, the only state to achieve that rank. It cited Hawaii’s failure to make adequate progress on key education reform promises in the 16 months since the $75 million grant was awarded.

But the state is on target with its Race to the Top assurances, the governor told the HPR audience in his most extensive public comments yet on the issue.

“The Race to the Top stuff is moving along very, very well,” he said.

As for the perception that it’s not, he said, the leaders of the Hawaii State Teachers Association are to blame.

He even went so far as to imply that union leaders are holding students hostage.

“The children are the ones that are the hostages to that kind of action,” he said, describing the wrangling before the state labor board over the contract he imposed in July. “And the teachers are the ones that have apparently turned over their union to a lawyer.”

Abercrombie said it’s incorrect to think that the Race to the Top reforms have anything to do with the collective bargaining agreement that’s in dispute.

“The discussion on Race to the Top — which involves teacher evaluations, which involves performance, which involves principals being able to exercise authority in poorly performing schools, and so on — has nothing to do with the collective bargaining contract that’s in place,” he told Kozlovich. “It never did.”

However, the reforms, such as teacher evaluations and performance pay, actually do have to be negotiated with the union. They involve changes in work conditions covered by the contract.

Last year, Abercrombie and Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi declared an impasse in negotiations and in July implemented a “last, best and final” offer on the state’s 12,500 teachers with a 5 percent pay cut and increase in health costs.

Abercrombie sent mixed messages about whether negotiations on Race to the Top reforms have continued despite the legal battle over the imposed contract, and he refused to take responsibility for the reality depicted by the federal education department: The reforms have not been implemented.

He claimed that everyone else is working hard on Race to the Top while union leaders try to sabotage their efforts.

“What bothers me in all of this is, the teachers who are working on Race to the Top, who just left the Great Teachers and Great Leaders meeting, they’re working on their own, out of love and dedication and commitment — professional and personal — to put all this together,” Abercrombie said. “It’s all in place. It’s being held up by people who have another agenda — a personal agenda, having to do with the internal politics of the union.”

Abercrombie did not tell listeners that the Great Teachers and Great Leaders Task Force was far behind in its efforts. Thursday was its inaugural meeting. The group was supposed to have made recommendations before negotiations for the contract imposed in July were wrapped up.

Meanwhile, Hawaii’s $75 million grant hangs in the balance.

Although Abercrombie’s comments about Race to the Top and all matters HSTA lasted several minutes, he managed to evade Kozlovich’s question about how he plans to get the state back on track in the race.

Two separate times Kozlovich asked the governor what he planned to do to resolve the situation.

“So what do you do to conciliate all of this, bring people back and talk about it, and move it into a positive realm?

“Nothing,” he replied the first time. “This is a complete misconstruing of what’s taking place.”

The second time, he diverted attention to the union again.

“Well, why not put it back into the hands of the teachers and get the lawyers out of it?” he said. “That might be a way to do it. I mean, I can’t do anything about the internal administration of the HSTA. I can’t do anything about that. Only the teachers can do something about that.”

At one point, the governor went back and forth about his role in the negotiations.

“But if somebody wants me to do all the negotiating, heck, that’s all right with me — no, it isn’t all right with me, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be done,” he said.

Read the full transcript of his interview below.

Kozlovich: I talked to Joan Husted not long ago, and with everybody’s back up against the wall and the fact that all of these funds are hanging in the balance, how do you move everyone off into a conversation to be able to have that come to fruition in a very positive way?

Abercrombie: I hope you’re not saying that the teachers union is holding the children hostage. The negotiations…

Kozlovich: I’m not saying that anyone is holding anyone hostage. But when you have people with their backs against the wall..

Abercrombie: The children are the ones with their backs to the wall. Now let me explain…

Kozlovich: Now talk to me about that, please. Because when I talked to Joan Husted about a week ago, the point was..

Abercrombie: Joan Husted didn’t do any negotiations.

Kozlovich: No she didn’t, but I asked her to comment, just because she’s been watching this from the outside, and looking at it as those people do. And she has a way of looking at it, other people have too, certain teachers have talked to us, as well as just parents concerned that we’re not going to have these funds made available. So what do you do to conciliate all of this, bring people back and talk about it, and move it into a positive realm?

Abercrombie: Nothing. This is a complete misconstruing of what’s taking place. I have no idea what you mean about bringing people back. The discussions on Race to the Top, which involves teacher evaluations, which involves performance, which involves principals being able to exercise authority in poorly performing schools, and so on, has nothing to do with the collective bargaining contract that’s in place. It never did.

Those discussions are ongoing — there’s nothing to go back to. Those discussions are under way while we’re speaking here. And have been.

Unfortunately, some people within the HSTA union hierarchy, constantly want to bring things back to collective bargaining negotiation. That’s — that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about here. An agreement was reached on all of the cost items in April of last year.

An overall agreement then was reached on all the other non-cost issues that were on the table — all of them — in early June.

That agreement was done. It was taken back to the board of the HSTA, who never put it to their membership, and never offered any kind of a counter-offer or any kind of indication that what they’d agreed to — let me finish — was unsatisfactory.

There’s no — you can’t negotiate with somebody who’s agreed with you and then fails to take the agreement that they made to their own membership. This is an internal HSTA problem.

And now they go to the labor board and go on, and on, and on, when there’s a very simple question: Was there an agreement? Yes. Was it ever voted on? No. Has there ever been a counter-offer of any kind? No. Why don’t you do it? No.

In that context then, because of apparently an internal problem with the HSTA, which I, you know I don’t have anything to do with — that’s entirely for the membership of the HSTA to deal with.

They have been spending tens of thousands of dollars a week in endless meandering in front of the labor board about whether or not collective bargaining is constitutional, or something. I have no idea what they’re doing, but I do know it’s costing, I suspect it’s costing hundreds of thousands of dollars or more for the membership. Now if they want to keep paying for that kind of desultory sideshow, I guess they can do that.

But the children are the ones that are the hostages to that kind of action. And the teachers are the ones that have apparently turned over their union to a lawyer.

I guess it’s up to them, but it has nothing to do with Race to the Top. Those discussions have been ongoing. Teachers have already been implementing this — teachers have been doing a terrific job.

I don’t know who necessarily you’ve been talking to, but teachers out there understand completely that they’re in this with everybody else. All the public employees have accepted the fact that we have to have labor savings in order to balance the budget. Because we have to have a common figure to deal with in terms of making our medical payments so we don’t lose it entirely.

All the other public employees have come to that conclusion, and they all voted on it, by the way. The only ones who haven’t voted on it are the teachers.

The UPW, they went through their negotiations with it: 89 percent approval. 89 percent approval. We got rid of the furloughs, we got rid of layoffs, we got 50-50. Uh, you know where I grew up, when you go 50-50, it means both sides are sharing the cost on medical premiums, and the 5 percent cut that we had to have in order to get to labor savings to save the pension system and to save the capacity to have a balanced budget.

HGEA voted it through, UPW voted it through, but the teachers have never voted. Has anybody asked the question, “How come I never got a chance to vote on this? How come we never had a chance to do it? And if we didn’t have a chance to do it, why didn’t the union leadership, the board, make a counter-offer?”

I’ve been waiting since June of last year; I’ve never heard anything. All I know is they’re appearing in front of a labor board — which, by the way, is one member short, because one of the members was attacked and felt she had to recuse herself because her husband is a member of the teachers union.

Now, I never required that. And I think it’s sexism to tell you the truth. Why should somebody’s spouse be victimized by the fact that they’re the member of a union or the member of a corporation, for that matter?

That’s the situation that we’re in

Kozlovich: OK, but come back with me to the Race to the Top and what they want us to perform and to do, and why we’re on that high-risk list. Because for a lot of people…

Abercrombie: Because it hasn’t been concluded.

Now, believe me, if somebody wants to make it a collective bargaining issue the way I did before, I’ll do it. But that’s what the Board of Education is for. Do people really expect — is that what people want? For the governor of the state to start negotiating a performance contract for teachers or where principals go, or teacher evaluations? Do they really want the governor to do that? I mean, think about what’s being said here — I mean it doesn’t make any sense.

Kozlovich: No no no, well in terms of losing the money. If the money isn’t going to be there unless those criteria are met, then wouldn’t that be your proper position to be able to say wait a minute, I’ve still got $72 million hanging in the balance.

Abercrombie: Believe me, the federal Department of Education is going to be here. I’m in contact with Arne Duncan, I’m friends with Arne Duncan, I know Arne Duncan personally, and I’m well aware of this. They’re going to be out here the third week in January and I expect this to be done.

I know everything’s in place there. The only thing that’s holding this up is this…the Race to the Top stuff is moving along very, very well. The reason it hasn’t come forward is, there are people wanting to drag this back into this question of a collective bargaining contract that they never voted on.

Kozlovich: The evaluation piece, you mean.

Abercrombie: The evaluation piece, where the principals go — all the things associated with Race to the Top, all of this. The Board of Education has been working diligently on it, the Department of Education has been working diligently on it, and people inside the HSTA have been working diligently on it.

Kozlovich: So how do you see this moving out of this place where people are pointing the finger internally and externally, and getting on with the business of what needs to happen?

Abercrombie: Well, why not put it back into the hands of the teachers and get the lawyers out of it? That might be a way to do it.

I mean, I can’t do anything about the internal administration of the HSTA. I can’t do anything about that. Only the teachers can do something about that.

But if somebody wants me to do all the negotiating, heck, that’s all right with me — no, it isn’t all right with me, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be done. I can’t run the day-to-day affairs of the schools — I don’t want to, that’s why I have an appointed school board. That’s why we’ve got a Department of Education and a school board and HSTA working on all this.

What bothers me in all of this is, the teachers who are working on Race to the Top — the ones who just left the Great Teachers and Great Leaders meeting, they’re working on their own, out of love and dedication and commitment — professional and personal — to put all this together. It’s all in place. It’s being held up by people who have another agenda — a personal agenda, having to do with the internal politics of the union.

And I really feel badly about that, having been a union organizer myself; having been on the executive board of the AFL-CIO here in the state; having a connection and support for organizing and the necessity of it on wages and conditions and so on and so forth, of what working people are all about.

To see a situation in which the internal politics — internal politics of an organization, union or otherwise — is actually undermining the very mission and purpose for which they’re organized, is a very sad thing.

I don’t know if there were some words to this effect in the newspaper today, I don’t know, it was in the newspaper, so who knows whether the quotes are right or not. But there’s this threat that unless this contract bargaining is brought back into the picture, that there’s a threat against Race to the Top. That means it’s a threat against children.

I don’t know how anybody can in good conscience say that, “Unless you do what we want, we’re going to hurt kids.”

Kozlovich: Is that really what they’re saying, though, as opposed to, simply, “If we don’t get to this point and do what’s required, then the funds simply will drop out”?

Abercrombie: But we are at that point, what’s to stop it?

Kozlovich: Not…well, then why would we be put on a high-risk list, if everything has gone well?

Abercrombie: Because they haven’t come to the conclusion. I haven’t had anything to do with it.

As I say, I keep asking every day, “Isn’t this moving forward?”

Yes, it’s moving forward.

“Aren’t the discussions being held?”

Yes, they’re being held.

“Then why isn’t it being done?”

And the only conclusion I can come to, is every time there’s a public pronouncement about it, it has to do with collective bargaining and a contract that’s been under way since July of last year and it’s never been voted on.

Kozlovich: So the bottom line with this is, you’re calling on HSTA to work through it internally?

Abercrombie: I’m calling on them to back up their own teachers. Back up the people who are doing the job right now, who have put all this together. This thing is ready to go.

Kozlovich: So from your perspective, the $72 million that’s hanging in the balance really isn’t?

Abercrombie: Oh, they may very well be, I guess, if they end up not wanting to do it. But it won’t be for lack of effort on everybody else’s part to get that to happen.

But if the conclusion of the HSTA leadership is that they do not want to have Race to the Top, despite all the efforts that have been made by the Board of Education, by the Department of Education, and their own teachers, to put together what’s necessary to succeed in this — whether it’s performance, whether it’s evaluations, whether it’s placement of principals in schools that need help, whatever the criteria are in Race to the Top — then they’ll have to take the responsibility for it.

Kozlovich: All right, we’ve got some callers on the line. We’re going to Dave calling us from Kailua. Dave, thank you for your patience.

Abercrombie: You know, I’d appreciate, just before Dave comes on — you know, we’re making such great progress all over the place — the reading scores are really working very very well. Teachers are working so hard, the schools have been making such terrific progress…that to let this sideshow of internal politics take center stage is a real disservice to all the teachers and the schools and the principals and the staff who are doing such a terrific job.

About the Author