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Flagler Schools Prepare to ‘Awake the State’ As Night of Long Budget Knives Falls on Florida

| March 7, 2011

Not quite morning again in Florida. (NASA)

Staring around 4 p.m. Tuesday, you’ll notice a lot of red shirts on Belle Terre Parkway between the Kohls and Publix shopping centers. School employees and their supporters, including school board members, will be out in force with a message for Tallahassee’s lawmakers: “Kids are our business, not a business.” (You’ll see those words on some of the shirts.) It’s one of dozens such demonstrations planned across the state at the same time. It’s not Wisconsin yet. nor is it likely to be: unions here are weak, contempt for them is second nature for a majority of politicians, and Democrats are irrelevant, now that both chambers of the Legislature have super-majorities of Republicans. But on March 8, the first day of the Legislature’s 2011 session, thousands of public employees want to remind lawmakers that reform and recklessness need not be Florida synonyms.

That school board members will be on the Belle Terre sidewalks alongside teachers and others is ironic. For several hours Monday morning, the school board did what it did last week in a similar workshop: it sharpened, reluctantly, its budget-cutting knives as it figures out where to slash at least $3.5 million from its budget, likely eliminating many elective classes and close to four dozen teachers along the way. Teachers should be demonstrating against them. They’re not (at least not yet) because so far the understanding is that local boards, like local governments across the state, are not the culprits. They’re merely the ones responsible for doing Tallahassee’s “dirty work,” as School Board member Colleen Conklin put it.

“I think at some level, just common ordinary people need to say: enough,” Conklin said. “These are the people who are the backbone of our community and we need to let them know that we respect them and we support them. If there are pension systems tied to organizations that need to be addressed and fixed then do that, but let’s not kid ourselves and lose sight that Wall Street and the banking institutions have responsibility in the financial meltdown of America.”

That said, the state is facing a deficit approaching $4 billion. If, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it at the beginning of the last century, “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society,” Florida has decided to pass on civilization. Despite the deficit, Gov. Rick Scott wants to cut taxes, not raise them. Despite now presiding over one of the most poorly funded school system in the nation, he wants to reduce funding by more than $1 billion. Add to that the end of the billions in federal stimulus Florida benefited from in the past two years, including $5.7 million in Flagler schools, and holes in local budgets begin to gape more visibly.

Flagler schools are operaying on a $97 million budget right now. The district is expecting $91 million next year, according to Valentine. It intends to make ends meet by going into its reserves of around $7 million, and by cutting some programs and positions.

“It’s a drastic cut,” Superintendent Janet Valentine says. She doesn’t see how those cuts can happen without making equally drastic changes to how the district operates. The board is almost certain to approve changing school schedules and the length of the school day, of classes, and of year-long employees’ contracts. All would be altered, reduced, redrawn. Most significantly, the seven-period day in middle and high schools would be reduced to six, or in high schools the seven-period day would give way to a hybrid between “block scheduling” and a shorter class (three very long periods and one short one). Either way, the net effect would be job losses for many.

“If we go with the decision of the middle schools and the high schools going to a different schedule,” Valentine said, “we think that will probably be, I’m going to say roughly 30 teachers, and it may be a little more. It could be 30 to 40.” That’s the only way the district can make the required budget cuts “and still meet class size, which is our mandate.”

Also proposed by a principal Monday: a 2 percent across-the-board salary cut for all employees as one way to ward off layoffs, though that would net only a $1.2 million saving. Also on the table: reducing year-long employees’ work days and cutting back hours for others.

All such proposals must first be endorsed by the school board, which the board is expected to do next week, then negotiated between the district administration and the unions. Those negotiations begin immediately after spring break. Those negotiations will be neither easy nor predictable, and an impasse similar to that of December (before the district discovered it was legally obligated to grant the sort of experience-based salary increases teachers were asking for) is not out of the question.

Katie Hansen, president of the Flagler County Educators Association, the teachers’ union, said cuts don’t have to be that drastic: the district isn’t looking at all options, from paring down its district and administrative staff to imposing a two-mile rule on bus transportation (most students would be eligible for bus transportation within two miles of a school attended). “Frankly, and this is kind of a conversation I’m hoping to have with the district very soon, we, FCEA, is very disappointed with how the district is dealing with this issue.” Example: the letters the district sent to some 170 employees informing them that their contracts would not be renewed, though a majority are likely to be rehired. Valentine says the letters were necessary as advance notice, letting people prepare alternatives, and ensuring that the district was on firm ground when it does come to lay-offs.

“I think the letter was a little bit presumptuous,” Hansen said. “We haven’t been to the bargaining table, we don’t know what the budget is going to look like and the session hasn’t even started.” That’s the legislative session that starts Tuesday.

Hansen will be on Belle Terre Tuesday, too. Valentine won’t be–not because she doesn’t support her employee’s message. She says she does, wholeheartedly. But she’ll be in Gainesville, at the same three-day roll-out of a federal education initiative called Race to the Top where Hansen was Monday and the first part of Tuesday.

That’s another irony of these demonstrations: one of the issues teachers have with proposals at the Legislature is a merit-pay plan similar to initiatives contained in Race to the Top, which is an Obama administration plan. Obama is supposedly a union ally, though he’s also made clear that he cannot be easily categorized ideologically.

Other proposals rankling public employees are attempts to constrict their collective bargaining rights and Scott’s plan to require all public employees to contribute 5 percent of their pay to their pension, which amounts to a 5 percent pay cut (since the contributions going into their retirement fund now are part of their compensation package, not a gift from the state). But the bulk of those proposals have a strong chance of making it through the Legislature because of the Republicans’ majorities.

Why bother demonstrating? “I asked the same thing,” Conklin said. “If we become apathetic then it sends another message, it sends the message that we’re ok with what you’re going, we approve of what you’re doing, we need to accept what you’re doing. You know what, maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe it’s not apathy at all. Maybe people—this is what they really want.”

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17 Responses for “Flagler Schools Prepare to ‘Awake the State’ As Night of Long Budget Knives Falls on Florida”

  1. LivingInReality says:

    How hypocritical of the school board to go out and protest with the teachers as they allow one to be stabbed in the back by the administration. I applaud the teachers for their bravery but they should watch out who the ally themselves with. If they use budget cuts to get rid of a teacher that an administrator has a problem with will they stop there? I don’t think so.

  2. Val Jaffee says:

    The school board isn’t being hypocritical, they’re hanging their mouths where the soup’s leaking.

    Remember they are elected officials making $30,000 for working at most 4 months a year.

    If they put their self interest (salary + perks) before the education of these children, at least publicly, they will draw the ire of parents, teachers and concerned citizens – and who knows what will happen – (recall). So they have to pretend to care.

    They would like for people to conveniently forget that the parents and the students are the sole reason they have jobs, and very cushy jobs at that.

    If they’re really concerned, let’s see them do it for the love of the students. SAC/PTO members do it for this very reason, and look how much they accomplish.

    Let’s start from the top down and not the bottom up. We need teachers in the classroom, not seat warmers and paper shufflers at the top.

  3. dlf says:

    Again we all want everything, in this case we need to take a hard look at what we can save and what we cannot. No one is offering sound suggestion on what we must do We certainly do not need comments such as Conklin saying the banks and Wall Street are the cause of all our problems, she is making her $35,000 a year plus bennies. True banks and Wall Street must burden some of the blame but we as a group and our spending habits must burden some of the blame also. Conklin should be making suggestions’ positive, in place of pointing fingers, the banks and Wall Street are not going to save the school system we are with positive action.

  4. dlf says:

    Would someone explain how asking teachers to contribute 5% of their pay to retirement is a pay cut, will they not get that money back when they retire? Why should it be a gift from the state, my property tax is not a gift from the state and part of it is used for education. I for one would be in favor of an increase in property tax if I see some movement by the other side. But all we hear is; the banks caused, Scott caused this and we are not giving in, that theme is getting old and many private citizens are getting tire of it. Since we are in this together and the kids are the ones being hurt .We should ALL give a little more, property owners, teachers, school board and to some smaller degree the students

  5. Jim Guines says:

    This is the weakest board of education that we have ever had. Colleen Conklin is maybe the most intelligent member on it and she is attempting to articulate the reasons for the problem. I for one support her efforts. The others will keep quiet and hope this passes and keep taking their pay. It will be interesting to observe their behavior in the future.

  6. Thinkforyourself says:

    Wake up folks! I didn’t hear the school board say they have a problem with employees paying into their retirement. People need to do their research – the state changed the rules in regards to retirement back in 74′ because at that time everyone contributed and when they left the system they took their money with them. The system was bankrupting the state. They changed it to a zero contribution not out of the goodness of their hearts but out of necessity. Currently, Florida is one of three state retirement systems with a SURPLUS!!!! Why? Because when that contribution is made on their behalf they can’t take it with them when they leave until they are vested after 6 years. Almost 50% leave the system before they are vested so guess who keeps this money – the state!! This is going to solve a problem only temporarily and not for the long term. We will be back in the same boat as the state was in 74′. But it’s an awesome sound bite to use. When will our state elected leaders plan for our future and not their political time line. People need to start and think for themselves. Don’t listen to either side, do your homework and make your own assessment of a situation. Does anyone not pay attention to history or do their homework. Conklin’s right, why do Wall Street and the banking industry get a pass? I didn’t read her to say they were ALL the blame. But why does all the blame fall on public workers? It’s easy to attack the board right now. Like Conklin said they now will do the state’s dirty work.

  7. Mike says:

    dlf says:
    We should ALL give a little more, property owners, teachers, school board and to some smaller degree the students

    Gee… I guess teachers do not have to pay porerty taxes anymore? Woo-hooooooo! Why didn’t I receive this memo??????

  8. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Teacher’s could get an immediate raise by kicking out their life-sucking unions and keeping their union dues in their pockets.

    Return the schools to the local community and abolish public service unions.

    Dissolving state and federal departments of education and their bloated black holes of bureaucracy would also save millions, if not, billions of tax payer bucks as well. They with the unions are anathema to the public education of our kids.

  9. Rob says:

    First, look at the Supervisor of elections web site. Over 50% of the voters in Flagler County voted for Rick Scott. Some of those voters are probably school board members, teachers, principals etc.

    I don’t get protesting on Belle Terre Parkway against your governor and legislators in the state capital.

    I said in an earlier post that there would be significant secondary ramifications as a result of removing billions of dollars from the state economy. While it may not hurt you it will hurt someone you know.

    Organizations should be looking to root out inefficiencies, to reduce costs.
    Cutting personnel does little to reduce the inefficiency in an organization. In fact the same inefficiency remains there are just less people to mask it.

    An across the board 2% pay cut is BS, pay cuts should be tiered.
    The more you make the larger the cut.

    And as we know the people on the bottom are going to be disproportionately affected. Janitors, grounds keepers, etc are the first to go; middle management and management (directors, principals, asst principals and those who push chairs around the office, friends of friends) are the last.

  10. Outsider says:

    While I empathize with the plight of the school system’s workers, I wonder where all these protesters were when MY company dealt with the financial realities of the recession OVER A YEAR AGO. Five hundred of my co-workers were furloughed. Then, on a Friday morning, 15% of the office staff were escorted to the front door by company security personnel. All management personnel’s 401k match were cut from 50% to ZERO. Why is it that only public service workers seem to believe they should be immune from the same economic realities the rest of us have to face?

  11. dlf says:

    Mike : you are right teachers do pay a tax the same as all of us do ,if they pay the same tax what are they giving up? What is their skin in the game? Our tax rate increases ,the teachers pay and retirement increases so it is win win for them.

  12. dlf says:

    Outsider:what a great point,you bring it home in a way we can all relate to It gets back to the fact we ALL need to kick in to help solve the problems, that means all of us not just some while others gain all the rewards.

  13. popo3984 says:

    hey all you tea baggers how about you leave us police and teacher pensions alone most of you already have your pension or make more then a public employee’s but always bitch about us how about if you hate the police so much dont call us when you need us cause guess what wait till you see the level of service you will get if any of this pass GO TEAMSTERS

  14. LivingInReality says:

    With all of the budget problems in the state our leaders are telling employees that they will have to take pay cuts and loose benefits. Why don’t they start with their own salaries and benefits.

    In washington the annual salary of each Representative Congressman is $174,000. A cost-of-living-adjustment increase takes effect annually unless Congress votes to not accept it. Representatives are eligible for lifetime benefits after serving for five years, including a pension, health benefits, and social security benefits.

    Another little known fact is that nearly half — 261 of the 535, to be exact — are millionaires. The median wealth of a House member in 2009 stood at $765,010, while the median wealth for a senator in 2009 was nearly $2.38 million. That puts them in the group of americans that would have had to

    At the state level our congressmen and representatives get paid almost 30,000 for 60 days of work. The governor and almost half of the Florida Senate and more than one-third of state House members have a net worth topping $1 million.

    Janet Valentine gets paid $168,600 per year which is over twice the salary of a teacher with a doctorate who has been teaching for 22 years which is $63,177. So before these “leaders” start firing teachers and cutting salaries and benefits maybe they should “lead” by example at take pay cuts themselves.

    And now Rick Scott’s cuts to education total 1.75B and he is giving 1.6B in tax cuts to corporations. I guess thats the “new” math that will be taught to show that the budget will be balanced.
    Here’s a short clip on his math.

  15. dlf says:

    Popo3984: go have another donut your eyes look a little glazed over.

  16. Outsider says:

    Hey popo, I have a friend who worked for an airline for 25 years; he had accumulated a pension of $8,000 a month. The bankruptcy judge cut it back to 500 bucks a month. You want me to give you his number so you can sob to him?

  17. kevin says:

    Here is classic, underbelly of America, Democrat observation:
    “hey all you tea baggers how about you leave us police and teacher pensions alone most of you already have your pension or make more then a public employee’s but always bitch about us how about if you hate the police so much dont call us when you need us cause guess what wait till you see the level of service you will get if any of this pass GO TEAMSTERS”

    Classically ignorant yet this kind of ignorance is perpetuated daily with not one person, except for me and a slim few others, willing to inform my beer swilling friend that he wrong. A tiny, little percentage of greedy M-Fs have the money and bloated defined pay benefit packages he refers to, but the rest of us private sector people primarily have only their own privately funded and grown 401ks to fall back along with the hopes of SS at retirement time. Most have been double dipped in monumental losses due to three significant correction in a ten year period having occurred.

    The actual numbers are the antithesis of what my man claims and honestly, if anyone is so ignorant as to challenge me to address what they are, then you’re as dumb as he is. The bias of that old-fart, blow hard is as embedded as a prion in brain.

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