The Hawaii teachers union and the state returned to the bargaining table Thursday, three months to the day since their last session.

But the invitation to sit down for another round of talks — on the eve of a three-day weekend and after some less than cordial comments from Gov. Neil Abercrombie — could be just another stop on what’s been a very long and frustrating trail. The meeting raised eyebrows among some who think the timing might be more geared toward pleasing federal education officials who recently visited Hawaii.

Nonetheless, Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe said the two-hour bargaining session at HSTA’s office was “very cordial.”

Future dates were secured and union leaders remain “hopeful.” He thanked teachers for their continued support with an update on HSTA’s Facebook page.

On March 19, the governor called the HSTA’s Feb. 28 settlement offer “fiscally irresponsible.” The proposed contract was the result of a two-week listening effort the union undertook to better incorporate the interests of educators around the state.

Abercrombie called the 138-page proposal a “card shuffle” in a recent interview with Civil Beat. The union’s settlement offer came after teachers rejected the administration’s Jan. 19 proposal.

The administration asked the union to return to the bargaining table the same week U.S. Department of Education officials were visiting Hawaii to review the state’s Race to the Top progress. The request for Thursday’s meeting was made March 28, the day after Okabe met with the federal team.

Hawaii is on “high risk” status for failing to fulfill some of the promises it made for the $75 million grant. The contract issue is one of the red flags the feds have cited.

Teachers have been working since July 1 under the administration’s unilaterally implemented “Last, Best, and Final Offer.” That contract will be up in June.

On Tuesday, Okabe penned a letter to President Obama that characterized the union’s negotiations with Abercrombie as “difficult.”

“There are times when the Governor says publicly that the remaining issues should be resolved at the collective bargaining table. At other times, he states that he will mandate a settlement and legislate outstanding issues,” Okabe wrote.

“We share your belief in the positive power of collective bargaining – renewed negotiations are the best path forward and in the best interest of Hawaii’s students,” he said. “Please advise Secretary Duncan that the Hawaii State Teachers Association is willing to negotiate any of the issues that put Hawaii at ‘high risk.'”

The Legislature, down to the final few weeks of this year’s session, is advancing bills that would shore up other weaknesses in the Race to the Top grant.

HSTA continues to oppose legislation to give the Department of Education, and the board, the power to devise and implement a teacher evaluation program tied to student growth. That bill, which passed the House Finance Committee this week, also extends the probation period for new teachers from two years to three years.

Okabe has compared it to action taken last year in Wisconsin. He posted a brief letter on HSTA’s website Wednesday urging members to contact their lawmakers about the bill. 

The union president has underscored that he doesn’t want the state to take away any collective bargaining rights.

Meanwhile, the Hawaii Labor Relations Board is hearing HSTA’s case against the state over the imposed contracts.

There were four days of hearings last week featuring testimony from HSTA witnesses. The sessions are expected to resume April 10-12, and more will be scheduled if necessary. The case began in August.

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