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The new leaders of the Hawaii State Teachers Association say they have big plans for changing the way their union tackles some of the toughest education issues in the state.
But before Corey Rosenlee, Justin Hughey and Amy Perruso can start addressing problems like teacher retention or school spending, they will have to deal with the divisions caused by one of the most contentious elections in union history.
“The biggest thing right now that we need to do is heal,” said Rosenlee, who will take the helm of the HSTA on July 8 after garnering the most votes for president in last week’s controversial union election.Hughey and Perruso, who campaigned on the same platform with Rosenlee, won the vice president and secretary-treasurer races, completing a Hawaii Teachers for Change Coalition sweep of the top leadership positions.
Tuesday’s election announcement came a week after teachers cast their votes for leadership for a third time this year, and nearly two weeks after Rosenlee took the union to court in an effort to block the revote.
Rosenlee said on Tuesday that he would drop his lawsuit now that the election is over.
“Just like Democrats and Republicans can have big battles in the primaries and in the end have to come together as a party,” Rosenlee said, “we have to come together as a union.”
The election, which pitted senior union leaders against teachers known for organizing protests and stirring the pot, is indicative of a big demographic shift in union membership, teachers say.
“We have a lot of work to do as a union, but I think what this election has done is really energize the membership to participate in that work,” Perruso said. “I think this is a turning point for our union.”
HSTA leadership delayed certifying the results of the first election, held by mail and electronic ballot over two weeks in April, after none of the three candidates for vice president garnered a majority of the votes.
Rosenlee ran against current union Vice President Joan Lewis in the April election. Perruso’s opponent for secretary-treasurer, Osa Tui Jr., campaigned along with Lewis and vice presidential candidate (and current secretary-treasurer) Colleen Pasco. A third candidate for vice president, Paul Daugherty, ran independently.
After a runoff election in May for vice president, the HSTA Board of Directors voted to throw out the results from both elections because of voting “irregularities.”
The decision — made after a 12-hour board meeting — incensed many teachers, who took to social media demanding to know the election results with the hashtag “tellusnow.”
Rosenlee, Hughey and Perruso said they had rightfully won the election, and that it was improper for the board not to certify the election after already receiving the results.
According to a complaint and temporary restraining order filed by Rosenlee, the union’s Board of Directors violated union bylaws when it voted 21-8 in May not to certify.
The court declined Rosenlee’s petition for a temporary restraining order because of concerns over jurisdiction.
The final election, on June 2, was similar to the process for contract ratification with teachers voting in-person over a three-hour block at selected school sites.
Rosenlee garnered 56.4 percent of the votes, while Lewis secured 43.6 percent. Hughey won 54.8 percent of the vote to Pasco’s 45.2 percent. Perruso received 100 percent of the votes after her opponent asked to be removed from the ballot.
Voter turnout on June 2 was higher than in previous elections, but only 3,149 of the state’s roughly 13,000 teachers cast ballots.
Still, Lewis pointed to the increase as confirmation that the board’s earlier decision to toss out the election results was the right thing to do.
“I think the fact that the voter turnout was greater validated the sense of the board members that the first election process was flawed,” Lewis said, “but that we have a system in place that would allow us to make the corrections.”
Lewis, who has been volunteering with the union for 25 years and been a part of senior union leadership for the last 12, will continue teaching at Kapolei High School. Current president Wil Okabe will return to teaching, a union spokeswoman said.
Rosenlee, Hughey and Perruso ran together on a promise to change the way the union does business.
In particular, Perruso said, they hope to move the union away from a “business union model” that operates behind closed doors, to an “organizing union model” that engages a broader spectrum of teachers.
“What that will help us do is to energize teachers, to bring them into the fold and to help them be more involved in the union in ways that empower them to make the union more democratic, more transparent and less hierarchical,” Perruso said.
Rosenlee said he wants to see teachers have a much bigger presence when it comes to proposed legislation, and he wants to do a better job of raising awareness about some state challenges like the lack of air conditioning in schools, teacher pay, teacher turnover and educational inequities.
“We have to see the fight for good schools as a civil rights fight,” Rosenlee said. “If you see it as a civil rights movement then you use civil rights strategies.”
The details for how the union might operate differently under Rosenlee aren’t completely clear, but election observers point to Rosenlee’s background for a hint.
Rosenlee is perhaps best known for organizing the Work to the Rule protests, which made national headlines in 2012. During the protests, which started after teachers had worked more than a year without a negotiated contract, teachers worked only the mandated hours of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. — drawing attention to all the work grading papers and overseeing extracurricular activities that teachers do on their own time.
“Too often teachers voices are not heard,” Rosenlee said. “We want to make sure that when we make public policy decisions about education, people hear about how it is going to impact teachers and students.”
One concern voiced by Lewis and her supporters, is that the union under Rosenlee will be too adversarial.
“Historically, our union leadership has always tried to function as a partner,” Lewis said. “Generally you are not trying to agitate and throw rocks at your partner.”
In past years, under former-Executive Director Joan Husted, the union strategy in negotiations was to “do your homework and be as tough as you can, but don’t burn your bridges,” said Jim Shon, director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center at UH Manoa.
But there’s a big difference though between being an activist and being adversarial, said Neil Milner, a UH professor emeritus and Civil Beat columnist.
“I think that what you have coming in here are people who are more likely to try and get teachers to participate at the grassroots level in union action,” Milner said. “I think what happened is when you have the same people running unions for a long time they tend to get isolated.”
How those broader organizing strategies play out when it comes to negotiating with Gov. David Ige — who is thought to have a good relationship with current union leadership — is unclear.
For now, Rosenlee said, his job will be to talk to teachers about what their priorities are and get them engaged in the process before suggesting larger actions.
“I want to take it step by step,” Rosenlee said. “I don’t want to move too fast for my own board, and I don’t want to move too fast for our teachers either.”