The Hawaii State Teachers Association has grown increasingly powerful under the leadership of Corey Rosenlee, playing a key role in keeping classrooms closed for months, pushing out the current superintendent and even getting teachers a $2,200 bonus.
Critics say the union has gone too far beyond its focus of advocating for teachers and students and is wielding outsize influence over statewide policy, elections and other issues.
So what will change when Rosenlee passes the baton to the union’s current vice president, Osa Tui Jr., in July? Tui says not much in terms of policy, although he has a different style.
“We’ve been on the right path lately and I want to keep the ship pointed in that right direction,” he said last week.
The transition in leadership of the HSTA, which represents some 13,500 teachers, comes at a pivotal time for Hawaii’s public school system.
The Board of Education has begun the search for a new superintendent, and schools are trying to resume in-person classes and help struggling students catch up after months of online learning due to COVID-19.
Tui, 45, also will assume the presidency as some cast a wary gaze upon the union’s pull in the state.
“HSTA is a major statewide political powerhouse,” said Randall Roth, an author and former UH Manoa law professor. “They just have tremendous power. If the union decides it doesn’t want someone elected or appointed, they have an incredible amount of power to influence the governor and legislative races.”
Under Rosenlee, who has led the union since 2015 but is barred by term limits from serving as president again, the union fought to delay the reopening of classrooms during the pandemic until it was satisfied that enough teachers were vaccinated to make it safe.
He also led the charge against Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, accusing her of trying to reopen schools too quickly and of leadership failures. Kishimoto announced in March that she would not seek a renewal when her contract expires at the end of July.
More recently, the union lobbied successfully for one-time $2,200 teacher bonuses from the Legislature this session, which Gov. David Ige told Hawaii News Now was outside the lawmakers’ reach.
Rosenlee, meanwhile, is vying for the superintendent job, putting him in the unusual position of potentially crossing over as a union chief to overseer of the entire K-12 single district statewide school system.
“If we’re trying to reopen schools, you need someone who can go out there and convince teachers that it’s safe,” Rosenlee said in a recent interview. “It’s a good thing to have a good relationship with the unions.”
Tui, a McKinley High School registrar who ran unopposed in February’s union elections, will inherit the challenges of repairing the union’s public reputation while navigating the post-pandemic needs of its members as schools prepare to fully reopen in August amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
“If the union decides it doesn’t want someone elected or appointed, they have an incredible amount of power to influence the governor and legislative races.” — Former law professor Randall Roth
Though Tui said he wouldn’t have changed the union’s focus in this regard this past year, he would offer a different style.
“I hope that I can bring some aloha to the position, maybe let’s just say,” Tui said. “Corey’s done great things. His methods are not necessarily the same as my methods will be. There’s not one way to succeed at the job. We’ll have to see.”
Tui was firm, yet empathetic, when it came to discussing the outgoing superintendent.
“We were very hopeful for Superintendent Kishimoto and what she brought and what she was doing, but unfortunately the pandemic revealed some hard truths,” he said. “She wasn’t the only one: superintendents all over the country had a hard time dealing with this pandemic.”
The leaders of the three largest U.S. school districts — New York City, Los Angeles Unified and Chicago — all announced they were leaving in recent months due to the demands of leading during this time.
Tui also expressed concern about future financial problems for the schools after $557 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds run out.
“Right now, we have a lot of federal funds that are helping to sustain us,” he said. “I want to make sure that going forward, we make sure education remains a top priority for our state. The teacher shortage crisis continues to be a concern. Every teacher we lose is just (space for) a long-term substitute.”
The union has received mixed reviews for its heavy-handed approach to policy reaching outside the education system, including pushing for a constitutional amendment to impose a state tax on investment property to fund public education.
Roth, who strongly opposed the union’s failed bid for the amendment in 2018, attributes its ability to amass so much power to the centralized way the school system is run and the need to negotiate only one contract.
“Because everything is at the state level, they can use their political power, which is particularly potent in who wins the Democratic primaries,” he said.
“I suppose if you’re a teacher you appreciate HSTA flexing its political muscle in this way,” he added. “But I personally think HSTA in recent years has been overly focused on gaining and flexing power, while paying less and less attention to the long-term impact of its actions on its members, their students and the public.”
Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who led the state from 2010 to 2014, also accused the HSTA of forgoing its mission of empowering students by looking out only for its own members.
“They’re a privileged class, from their point of view,” he said. “Students are the last consideration of the present leadership and the public interest is the last thing.”
Abercrombie argued the problem existed even before Rosenlee’s tenure, citing the union’s 2013 opposition to his proposal to create a public preschool network that he said “helped to kill preschool in Hawaii.”
The union supported Abercrombie in 2010 but endorsed his Democratic primary challenger, Ige, in 2014.
Rosenlee countered that the core of what HSTA has done under his leadership has always been to “focus on our keiki.”
“When you take care of our teachers, you take care of our keiki and that’s something we’ve done,” he said, pointing to things like pushing for air-conditioning in overheated classrooms, culminating in Ige signing a $100 million “Cool Schools” bill in 2016.
As for the controversial $2,200 teacher bonus, Rosenlee said it came about as the result of “normal advocacy” by the union and that the House and Senate education and finance chairs were supportive.
The union also has been vigorous in pushing for teacher salary differentials, paying teachers commensurate to their years of experience and trying to dissuade the DOE from using pandemic federal aid to support summer programs like outside tutors at the expense of preserving teacher positions.
Though the federal aid put teacher furloughs, docked pay and job cuts on the back burner, teachers’ nerves are still on edge.
The HSTA is in negotiations with the governor’s office, the Board of Education and the Department of Education for a new contract since the current one covering 2017-2021 expires on June 30.
“What membership is really looking for is the reassurance that it will be OK,” said Sarah Milianta-Laffin, a STEM teacher at Ilima Intermediate who also sits on the HSTA’s board of directors.
Milianta-Laffin said she has confidence in Tui’s ability to look out for members.
“He’s a go-to source for information and that calms teacher anxiety,” she said. “If we know Osa is sharing it, he knows what’s going on and presenting it correctly and in a way we trust. He’s going to tell it like it is.”
Tui, an Oahu native who was raised in Kaneohe, is considered a master of negotiations.
Amy Perruso, a House lawmaker and former social studies teacher who successfully ran against Tui for HSTA secretary-treasurer in the controversial union election of 2015, noted his skills at the bargaining table.
“Corey and Osa are very different,” she said. “Corey comes into a conversation with a clear agenda, and Osa is similarly strong, but he listens to counter-arguments and critiques and then he will modify his position sometimes. But sometimes it strengthens his position.”
“I think of him as being a serious powerhouse. He’s going to be a great leader,” she added.
Tui began his career in 1998 as a math teacher at Castle High, his alma mater. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in secondary mathematics education from the University of Hawaii Manoa, he returned to Castle to teach. In 2001, he moved to McKinley High to teach math, before becoming the registrar in 2008, handling things like student records, diplomas, transcripts and student programming.
Tui also has won praise for promoting transparency by posting DOE memos on policy or procedural changes that are very hard to find, even for teachers, on his Facebook page with speed and consistency.
It earned him the moniker, “the memo king,” during a recent episode of a teacher-led podcast, Maestros Vibe, on which he appeared as a guest.
“People are more empowered when they have more information in their hands,” Tui said on the program. “I did not set out to be the ‘memo king,’” he said, “but that’s certainly what it’s become. I don’t intend to stop.”
Tui said this routine grew directly out of the pandemic, when the DOE was issuing a flurry of memos dealing with important information, such as changes to English language learner requirements or new teacher leave protocols.
“I’ve always wanted to help people: when people needed information I was willing to scope it out for them and provide it for them,” he said. “Because I did that a lot, I was introduced to the HSTA negotiations committee.”
An HSTA member since 1998, Tui rose through the ranks, serving as the negotiations committee chair, then Honolulu chapter president, then HSTA vice president in 2018.
Tui was embroiled in a contested 2015 union election in which supposed “voting irregularities” led to a re-vote.
Rosenlee, a Campbell High School teacher and activist who was vying for the presidency on a “Hawaii Teachers for Change” platform with VP candidate Justin Hughey and Perruso for secretary-treasurer, tried to block the union’s plans to hold a runoff.
Rather than join his own running mates, Joan Lewis and Colleen Pasco, in a new election, Tui withdrew, saying he had received fewer votes in the first race against his opponent, handing Perruso the win.
“What was fascinating to me was, they insisted on a second election, but Osa withdrew his name,” Perruso recalled. “It really said a lot about his integrity, because the kind of pressure they put on him was intense.”
As Tui prepares to take the helm of HSTA, the union is on board with the full reopening of schools next year as more than 11,000 teachers have been vaccinated and more children are becoming eligible to get shots.
“It’s been a long, hard slog over the past year and a quarter, it’s been hard to have our teachers teach simultaneously or in hybrid mode,” Tui said. “It’s best for everyone to be back in the classroom. We just have to make sure it’s safe to do so, (and) it looks like we’re getting there.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.