Hawaii teachers delivered a stunning message Thursday.

By a 2-1 margin, they rejected a proposed six-year deal that had the unanimous backing of union leadership. The turnout was huge, with 9,000 of the state’s 12,500 teachers voting.

“Obviously we’re disappointed,” said Donalyn Dela Cruz, spokeswoman for the governor. “We have some concerns. Race to the Top was a big motivator in making sure there was a fair, tentative agreement and tomorrow we’ll see what are our next steps. The state will move forward and look at all of our options to ensure that our focus remains on Hawaii’s children.”

The vote marked the first time in its 44-year history that members of the Hawaii State Teachers Association rejected a contract that their board recommended.

Wil Okabe, president of the union, published a letter on the union’s website calling the vote “a victory for a union democracy.”

“While I recommended the proposal to you, my real job is to carry out the decisions you make,” he wrote.

“So beginning tomorrow, I will initiate a union-wide conversation about our options going forward, listen to your suggestions, roll up my sleeves, and get back to work.

“Many of you have suggested that we return to the negotiating table. Others of you believe a strike vote should be our next step. And still others have suggested that we continue with our legal challenges. Each of these points of view should be considered and discussed.”

He told reporters during a press conference Thursday night that it will take “two to three weeks” for HSTA leaders to assess the situation and determine what steps to take next.

“I cannot really speculate as to why this happened,” he said. “I believe that (the members’) voice has been heard. I’m going to have to spend the next two or three weeks going back to membership to find out the reasons for this ratification vote.

“It is an ominous thing. This is serious. But as I mentioned to you, this is a membership-driven organization, and if that’s the way that the members feel we should go, that’s the way we will go.”

Teachers have been upset since last July over the “last, best and final” offer that Gov. Neil Abercrombie imposed on them, clamoring that not only were his pay cuts too severe, but he had violated their collective bargaining rights.

The rejection at the polls on Thursday indicates they believe their leaders did no better when they finally struck a long-awaited deal with the state on Jan. 6. The Hawaii Department of Education and Board of Education had stayed silent about the agreement, which included some unpopular components the state needed in order to meet its federal Race to the Top goals: teacher evaluations and performance-based pay.

Union Vice President Karolyn Mossman said earlier this week that the state made no commitment to return to the bargaining table in the event of a “no” vote.

Which means the union has three choices, according to a memo Okabe sent to teachers the day before they voted:

  1. Live with the “last, best and final” offer until it expires in 2013
  2. Strike
  3. Continue with a long, expensive legal case the union lodged against the state last year

He said the union’s board of directors would be meeting over the weekend to determine their best option, and would not say which he prefers.

The contract that was rejected would have been retroactive to July 1, 2011, and for the first two years included the same health-care increase and 5 percent pay cut that Abercombie had imposed.

There were still many details to hammer out. Beginning on July 1, 2013, evaluations and a performance-based salary schedule required to meet Race to the Top promises were to have kicked in.

The evaluation on which the performance pay was to be based had not been developed yet. There was no telling whether either would have fulfilled the state’s Race to the Top commitments. Or how the Department of Education planned to afford them.

The performance pay involved a 1 percent raise for each year in which a teacher received an “effective” rating or higher on the not-yet-developed annual evaluation. The annual evaluations alone for 12,500 teachers would have required significant time and money to implement well. Today teachers are evaluated once every five years, if that.

Department of Education officials declined to talk about any details of the agreement until after teachers voted.

But earlier this week, HSTA touted the performance evaluations as a boon for teachers craving feedback on their effectiveness in the classroom.

View video clips of Okabe’s statements tonight below:

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