Hawaii teachers will receive pay raises and better healthcare benefits under a new four-year contract that the state and union tentatively agreed to this weekend.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association’s Board of Directors unanimously approved the deal Sunday after an all-night mediation session Friday between the negotiating teams. But it will be up to the union’s 13,500 members to decide whether to ratify the contract April 17.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie called it the most progressive contract in the United States, but didn’t offer many details. He, along with Board of Education Chair Don Horner, Board member Jim Williams and Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, held a press conference Sunday evening to announce the agreement.

“Together we have found a common ground,” Abercrombie said. “We have a contract that is right and fair and just.”

The deal includes the restoration of the 5 percent pay cut and reduced health care benefits that the state imposed in July 2011. Teachers will pay 40 percent of their medical cost premiums instead of half under the proposed contract.

There’s also a four-year plan for pay raises.

All teachers will move up one step in the salary schedule July 1, with $1,500 bonuses for teachers who are already at the top tier. In 2014, all teachers will receive a 3.2 percent across-the-board increase. This cycle of pay raises repeats in 2015 and 2016.

The state offered teachers 2 percent raises in December, but the union turned it down. HSTA responded in January with a settlement proposal that called for 4 percent raises, but the state rejected it.

The pay raises in the tentative contract agreement mirror the amount an arbitration panel awarded a bargaining unit of the United Public Workers in January. Some 2,700 health and correctional employees will receive 3.2 percent raises through June.

Noting the slightly rosier economic picture forecast this month by the Council on Revenues, Abercrombie said the state can afford the pay raises and healthcare costs.

“We have righted the fiscal ship of this state,” he said.

The governor added that the agreement is particularly good news for the Legislature as it works to approve the biennium state budget over the next several weeks. Knowing how much to plan for teacher personnel costs should give lawmakers “aid and comfort,” he said.

HSTA President Wil Okabe said the tentative contract agreement was reached in large part because of the pressure teachers put on the administration to resolve the two-year labor dispute. He noted 5,000 teachers joined in a protest March 14 at the Capitol Building.

“That sent a very strong message,” Okabe said. “But the main goal is to transform public education in Hawaii and improve student learning.”

In tune with Abercrombie’s comments about the progressive nature of the contract, Okabe said Hawaii could be a national model for education transformation.

One of the sticking points in the collective bargaining talks has been a new teacher evaluation system that’s being piloted in more than 80 schools statewide.

The tentative contract agreement includes this evaluation system, but with some reforms to ensure teachers are at the table in its ongoing development. The new evaluation system will be based half on teacher effectiveness and half on student growth using multiple measures.

A tentative contract agreement was reached in January 2012, but teachers rejected it primarily because they didn’t understand it.

Not wanting a repeat, Okabe said the union plans to spend the next two weeks working to ensure teachers grasp the contents of the contract.

The deal also involves the union withdrawing its complaint before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board.

HSTA filed the complaint after the state imposed its “last, best, final offer,” charging that it violated collective bargaining rights. The case wrapped up in May, but the board has yet to issue a decision.

The union has tried suing the state to make the labor board rule soon, but to no avail. HSTA is pushing a bill in the Legislature that would force the board to make rulings within a certain number of days.

Education advocates weren’t so pleased with HSTA’s decision to back down from the labor board case.

“We are saddened that as part of this contract, HSTA agreed to withdraw its complaint to the Hawaii Labor Relations Board regarding unilateral implementation of a last, best, final offer, an issue that remains clouded under state law,” Kris Coffield, legislative director of IMUAlliance, said in a statement. “Teachers, now, lose the possibility of a favorable outcome and court-ordered remuneration.”

He added that while this contract may not resolve every teacher’s concern, this is a solid proposal that should be ratified, one that makes significant progress toward recognizing the hard work of teachers and their fundamental importance to the state’s fiscal and social success.

“We are especially pleased that the contract includes HSTA in conversations about the future of teacher evaluations,” he said. “Teachers are the state’s most knowledgable education officials, the frontline of our learning system, and must have their expertise represented in discussions about matters that impact their future pay, work conditions, and reemployment. They know best what constitutes professional practice and student growth.”

Okabe said the union is encouraging its members to take ownership and vote on the contract ratification next month.

Read the details of the contract here:

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