The fight between the teachers union and the state may be over — more than six months after negotiations broke down and Gov. Neil Abercrombie imposed a contract.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association and the state reached “an agreement in principle” late Friday, a spokeswoman for the governor confirmed. A press release issued later from his office hinted that the state’s “high-risk” Race to the Top status may have been the catalyst for the new agreement:

The State of Hawaii and the Hawaii State Teachers Association tonight came together to agree on moving forward for transforming education. Both sides have reached an initial agreement. Governor Neil Abercrombie, Department of Education Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi and Board of Education Chairman Don Horner issued the following joint statement.

We are pleased we have reached an agreement in principle.

Our focus remains on working together to ensure Hawaii will secure its Race to the Top grant, which lays the foundation for transforming student learning.

We recognize that teaching is a profession that guides student achievement and we are committed to making the necessary changes in providing the best learning environment for teachers who excel in the classroom.”

The new agreement is longer term than the former two-year contract, and includes the equivalent to a “favored nation” clause guaranteeing no other union will receive a better contract, according to a source close to the union whom Civil Beat granted anonymity in order to get information about the contract.

“Any settlement that’s reached through negotiations is better than the alternative,” the source said, “as long as both parties understand that it is the product of their joint work and they equally own it.”

Further details of the tentative agreement were still under wraps Friday night even for people close to the union, but teachers could vote soon on the contract which would replace the governor’s “last, best and final offer,” which he imposed in July after negotiations reached an impasse.

Phone calls placed to several members of both the state’s and union’s bargaining teams were met with voicemail. A secretary for HSTA President Wil Okabe informed Civil Beat that Okabe was still in a meeting as of 7:45 p.m. Friday.

Board of Education member Jim Williams, a member of the board’s negotiating team, would not confirm or deny the agreement, and said “I have no idea whether there are going to be any more details.”

The contract, which included a 5 percent pay cut and increased health-care costs, has been mired in a legal battle before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board since August.

There appeared to be no end in sight for the lengthy hearings, until the governor in December received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education scolding the state for its lack of progress on federal Race to the Top reforms. The department warned the state it was at risk of losing the $75 million grant.

Many of the reforms the state promised — including teacher evaluations and performance pay — must be negotiated with the union, as they affect the teachers’ employment conditions.

The letter from the feds was dated Dec. 21.

A Dec. 22 hearing between HSTA and the state ended abruptly after attorneys for the two parties met privately. The hearings resumed on Jan. 5 as if nothing had happened.

Conspicuously absent from the hearing audience, however, were Okabe and Annette Anderson, the Hawaii Department of Education‘s chief negotiator.

There is no word yet on how this new agreement will affect the case before the labor board.

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