Both candidates have a lot in common. They’re teachers; their wives work in schools; they’re each part of a family tradition devoted to education.

But Wil Okabe and Paul Daugherty want to be president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association for different reasons. The former wants to continue the work he started three years ago when first elected to the position. The latter would like to see a profound shift in the union’s direction.

These are hardly easy times to take on the mostly thankless job that can require a lot of personal sacrifice. There’s an ongoing labor dispute. Unresolved contract negotiations. Race to the Top money in jeopardy. And the islands’ public school system continues to lag far behind the national average.

That’s not to say there aren’t a number of amazing things happening in Hawaii classrooms. Each candidate could rattle off a litany of A-plus accomplishments that students and teachers, individually and collectively, have realized in recent years.

But those highlights don’t negate the fact that the next president, whose three-year term officially starts in July, will face some serious challenges.

HSTA’s 13,000 members will decide who they want to lead them out of these dire straits starting this week. Ballots go out Monday and the voting period closes April 27. The results will be counted May 5.

Daugherty had plenty to say about why he is running. Okabe, on the other hand, not so much.

So it’s not a stretch that “communication,” or the lack thereof, provided the impetus for Daugherty to decide to run for the top union spot back in November. That, and the lack of anyone else willing to give the incumbent some competition.

“There’s cultural secrecy, not the transparency that I expect from a democratic organization,” he said. “Teachers have indicated they are very dissatisfied with the level of communication.”

A March 2012 survey by Ward Research shows many teachers voted against the most recent contract settlement proposal because it was “too vague” and there wasn’t enough information about the evaluation process and other components.

The same survey, commissioned by Castle Foundation, shows few feel HSTA is representing them well. Some 43 percent of respondents said “not very well,” compared to 40 percent who said “somewhat well,” 6 percent “very well,” and 10 percent “not at all.”

Daugherty, 57, and Okabe, 60, have been part of the union’s negotiations team for years, but that doesn’t mean they’ve always seen eye-to-eye on how to attain their shared goals.

“I saw missed opportunities in negotiations and missed handling of opportunities,” Daughtery said. “I felt misjudgment in leadership. These are kind of negative things to say, but I believe them.”

Because the negotiations are ongoing, he said he was unwilling to provide specific details of the blown chances.

Although Civil Beat gave him multiple opportunities, Okabe declined to comment on why he is seeking another term. He said it would be inappropriate, as HSTA’s chief spokesperson, “to promote myself in an interview about our internal elections.”

Contract negotiations resumed Thursday afternoon, the day before a three-day weekend. Okabe called the talks “very cordial” and future dates were secured. It was the first time the two sides had met since Jan. 5.

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. Indeed, 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 the promises it made for the $75 million grant. The teacher contract issue is one of the red flags the feds have cited.

Teachers have been working since July 1 under the administration’s unilaterally imposed “last, best, and final offer.” That contract expires in June.

Kris Coffield, legislative director of the nonpartisan political advocacy organization IMUAlliance, said the lack of a contract is a key issue.

“If HSTA’s members vote in a new leadership team — a new president and new board members — that could significantly alter the union’s bargaining strategy,” he said in an email last week. “Both presidential candidates have solid experience at the negotiating table, but changing leaders in the middle of negotiations would likely reset the tone of negotiations, for better or worse.”

Meanwhile, the Legislature is advancing bills that would shore up other weaknesses in the Race to the Top reform effort. This includes legislation to give the Department of Education, and the Board of Education, the power to devise and implement a teacher evaluation program tied to student growth. The bill, which is headed to conference committee, also extends the probation period for new teachers from two years to three years.

HSTA has submitted pages of testimony in opposition to multiple bills believed to strip collective bargaining rights. It’s a principle both candidates seem to share.

The top-down approach has bankrupted teacher morale, Daugherty said.

“The employees resent being treated like that. We’re getting disrespected,” he said. “Collective bargaining is part of American history. It’s not something you can just discard because it’s not the flavor of the month.”

Coffield said his biggest concern is how much the issue of “interdepartmental equality” affects this year’s elections.

“For example, the DOE’s pilot evaluation program will be extended to the Windward District next school year. But those schools won’t be seeing instructional time increases,” he said. “Will Windward teachers be expecting to discharge the same duties of work as teachers working in the current ‘zones of innovation,’ but with fewer resources? If so, how will the union react?”

“Personally, I think the election could hinge on how well teachers feel those questions have been answered,” he said.

IMUAlliance has enjoyed working with Okabe this legislative session, Coffield said, but is happy to work with whomever HSTA elects as its next president.

“While we haven’t always taken the same position or political strategy as HSTA on issues that concern teachers, we’re heartened by Okabe’s continued presence at the Capitol and have witnessed firsthand his efforts to collaborative discussion about how to amend statutes to advance best practices in the classroom,” he said. “My biggest hope is that the elections and their results aren’t too heavily politicized, outside of the union membership. Ultimately, we all want the same thing: Schools that give every child an opportunity to express their own best selves. If stakeholders set electoral politics aside, I firmly believe that’s a standard that we can exceed.”

Daugherty, who teaches math at Konawaena High School on the Big Island, said if he is elected there will be a lot of education outside the classroom.

“The public likes teachers, as people, but they don’t like unions, because unions are a bad thing,” he said. “There’s a lot of misconceptions in the public in terms of how they view the union. I think they picture Teamsters and swimming with the fishes and ILWU and bad experiences there.

“If elected, that’s the education piece I’m going to have to work really hard on until people really start to understand,” Daugherty said.

HSTA’s website, which could help improve communication between the union leaders and its members, is “an embarrassment,” he added. “Teachers complain vociferously about that.”

Still, Daugherty wishes someone else was going against Okabe, who taught physical education before becoming HSTA president. He even tried talking other teachers into running.

“I asked a couple people who I felt were highly qualified, more qualified than myself, and they said, ‘No, I’m loyal to Wil and I think he’s doing a great job. And so I said, ‘OK, I hear you.'”

In the end, Daugherty said he is approaching the election as a “win-win” situation. If he loses, he won’t have to move to Honolulu and manage a long-distance relationship with his family in Kona, who also run a coffee farm to help pay the bills.

“There are some plans I would like to see happen if I had the opportunity, for the teachers and the state. These next three years are pretty critical. But on a personal level, I could just stay home with my wife and harass my youngest to get good grades,” he said. “I look at politicians that do this as a career, like an Abercrombie or Romney, and I don’t think I could do it. Maybe you get used to it, but this is hard for me. I’m an introvert.”

If Daugherty unseats Okabe, he said he will have the chance to step up and “walk the walk.” The high school sports coach said he is naturally competitive, so winning would be his preference but there will be notable victories regardless.

“I think, at the very least, I help the organization by keeping Wil Okabe honest,” he said. “In the last month or so, I’ve already seen dramatically improved communication. The election has a wonderful way of focusing attention. So even if I lose, I was able to push to get some better things happening.”

Coffield said teachers just want someone to represent their interests fairly and passionately.

“Given the controversies that have developed this year over performance evaluations, instructional time, RTTT goals and ongoing contract negotiations, we expect this year’s election to be hotly contested,” he said. “Teachers, including those in our group, are tired of being treated like secondary professionals. They’re not against education reform. They just want fair reform and leadership that will fight to protect their voice.”

Joan Husted, HSTA’s former executive director, had 10 guidelines for whoever is elected president:

  1. Trust teachers: tell them what is happening. Tell the teachers where you are going, how you are going to get there and how you will know you are there.There is nothing in the collective bargaining law that requires on-record discussions to be secret. Yes, it will get out in the public, but it will help them understand why you are doing what you are doing.

  2. Rebuild the HSTA governance structure — teachers have done a good job of leading the organization in the past — let them do it again. 

  3. Make sure your word is your bond. If you shake hands, agree, say yes — make sure you follow through. If the president can’t be trusted, the organization can’t be trusted and if HSTA can’t be trusted then teachers can’t be trusted. Some times we agree to things we shouldn’t have; live with it.

  4. Be realistic. Let your teachers know what the economic facts are. Teachers have always been able to handle the truth. There is always a little more than they say there is and less than you think there is. Greed may be good on Wall Street, but it is problematical in bargaining. Do your homework.

  5. Get help from NEA. They have a number of other problems granted, but they will not let HSTA go down the tubes. First call for the president after the election should be to the NEA.

  6. If anyone tells you that you don’t need legislators, government officials, parents, the public, the media, the NEA and that you can be very successful isolated from those groups or any combination of those groups — FIRE HIM OR HER. Hawaii is a community of relationships. HSTA’s success or failure rest on the success of those relationships. Rebuild them.

  7. Rejoin the House of Labor. Remember the words of old politician. If we do not hang together, we will surely hang separately. Talk to them, ask advice — let them know what you are doing and why. Maybe they can help. If another public employee union does better in bargaining, so be it. Just do better next time.

  8. No one can victimize HSTA — only HSTA can victimize itself. Whining never sounds good whether from a person or an organization.

9, 10. If it is not working stop doing it. Period!

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