Gov. Neil Abercrombie put the ball back in Hawaii teachers’ court on Friday.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association on Thursday rejected a collective bargaining agreement with the state by a margin of 2-1. It was the first time in the union’s history that the majority of its members voted against a deal recommended by the board of directors.

At a press conference late Friday, Abercrombie said he has sent a letter to HSTA President Wil Okabe asking him to present a counter-proposal from the teachers “as soon as possible.” Meanwhile, the “last, best and final” offer the governor imposed on teachers last July will remain in place.

Okabe told Civil Beat in a telephone interview that he appreciates the governor’s offer to present a counter proposal, but that first he needs to meet with teachers to learn what went wrong, and that might take a few weeks.

The rejection was a stunning blow to state officials hoping to get Hawaii back in good standing for the state’s $75 million federal Race to the Top grant, after feds scolded them for a lack of progress on promised education reforms.

In the agreement were teacher evaluations and a performance-based pay schedule, both critical components to the Race to the Top.

The governor said that he plans to move forward with Race to the Top reforms.

He said he was disappointed that teachers rejected a contract that he believes was negotiated in good faith. He said teachers must have turned it down because they were “not fully aware of the positive aspects of the agreement.”

“The tentative agreement was aimed at teacher advancement and student achievement,” Abercrombie said. “I cannot think of a single thing we did not do to try to accommodate the concerns of the teachers union in this agreement.”

Echoing sentiments he expressed on Hawaii Public Radio on Jan. 6, the governor implied that union officials are to blame for teachers misunderstanding the contract.

“Part of this may be a communication difficulty in the union ranks,” Abercrombie said. “We got the unanimous support of the HSTA board of directors, and if they’re not in communication with their own members, that’s not something I can resolve.

“If you expect the Board of Education, the superintendent and my collective bargaining negotiating team to come to an agreement, you have to send people who have the confidence of the people they say they represent.”

Abercrombie said that he and his education policy team are forging ahead with Race to the Top reforms, with or without a new contract with teachers. Most of the ‘Race’ reforms don’t need to be bargained anyway, he said. That was just a gesture of good faith on the state’s part.

State law allows the Department of Education to exercise managerial discretion in changing the current teacher evaluation, for example.

HSTA President Okabe said he is concerned that the state may develop the new evaluation without the union’s input, but recognizes that is the Department of Education’s right.

Okabe said he agreed with Abercrombie that communication within the union needs improvement.

“I am going to have to go to our members and get some information from them,” he said. That may have to do with changing the communication tools, or better equipping board members to answer questions, he said.

“Even though we did give them the information about the new agreement five days before the ratification vote, we changed from the way we’ve communicated in the past, and used social media — our website, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and live streamed the informational briefing. Maybe we need to go back to the hard-copy and face-to-face way of communicating.

“And even though leadership is comprised of teachers in the classroom who voted unanimously for this contract, somehow the information didn’t get down to all the teachers in the schools.”

Former HSTA Executive Director Joan Husted said this is an opportunity for HSTA leaders to identify their weaknesses and address them.

“I think that the teachers are sending very clear messages about what they want done,” she said. “They want information, they want to be able to trust their leadership, they want HSTA to be tough, and they want the truth. This is a perfect opportunity for the organization to take a good look at itself and change some of the things it’s been doing that led to the turndown of the contract.

“I hope HSTA takes the opportunity to listen to what teachers just told them.”

Okabe renewed his commitment to represent the teachers with this counter-offer to the governor.

“If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in the last two weeks, it’s that I need to listen to more teachers and not anybody else,” he said.

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