Members of the Flagler Educational Support Professional Association, the union that represents Flagler schools’ 800-some service employees, are voting today on what may amount to the largest pay increase in nearly 20 years, though bus drivers and paraprofessionals will see larger increases than all others.
Bus drivers’ starting pay will increase to $15, as will the starting pay of all paraprofessionals such as teacher aides. The starting pay is increasing from $13.58. That $1.42 pay increase will apply down all 35 “steps” in the two categories pay schedule. Steps represents the number of years an employee has been employed with the district. For bus drivers, the steps max out at $24.11. So any employee at any stage on the step ladder will see a $1.42-per-hour pay increase.
All other support personnel regardless of current pay will get a 66-cents an hour increase. Support employees include secretaries, bookkeepers, office clerks, media aides, food service workers, bus mechanics, IT support personnel, and so on. The minimum wage in Florida this fall went to $10 an hour. The lowest-paid employee in the district–office clerk–is paid $11.10. That will increase to $11.76.
“So everybody’s getting something okay, no one’s being left out,” says Brun Hudson, president of FESPA, the service employees’ union.
The pay increase is comparatively substantial. Two years ago the support staff got a step increase and a 25-cent pay increase. The total value of the compensation package was $596,000. The compensation package the membership is voting on now is valued at $1.5 million. “So we have we have gotten the district to agree to infuse over a million dollars into support staff salaries. I think that is a gigantic win,” Hudson said. “I haven’t been around for 20 years as the president, but since I’ve joined the union, and that was in 2014, I have not seen a pay increase of this size since since then. And I don’t believe FESPA has seen a pay increase of this caliber since 2004. It’s been 20 years or better. So this was a huge win for the union and it was a very generous thing for the district to do for its employees.”
In addition to the regular pay increase, the union and the district have agreed to a separate pay incentive “for any driver that does extra work outside their contracted hours,” says Dontarrious Rowls, director of transportation.
As of Wednesday, Flagler schools’ transportation department was short 32 drivers. The district normally budgets for 95. It currently has only 55, and 62 buses. “we’re doing that work with less people, down about 35 percent of the workforce,” he said. Every morning, he said, “we’re pulling the rabbit out of the hat.”
As an incentive, any driver who agrees to take on additional runs beyond her or his normal contracted hour will get a flat $15 incentive for each of those additional runs. The driver will still get hourly pay for those runs. The incentive is in addition to that. Typically bus drivers are contracted for four or six hours of driving per day. So anything in addition to that will trigger the $15 incentive (per run), plus the hourly pay. Bus aides will also get the incentive: $13 per run, in addition to their regular pay.
“We’ve never seen a shortage to this extent,” Rowls said, noting that he understands parents and students’ frustrations, but wishes they would also see what daily challenges the transportation department is facing. Driver shortages are not new, but Rowls said pre-Covid the shortages tended to be in the 7 to 10 percent range of the workforce, making them more manageable. These days, every morning is a new configuration. “I definitely would like the parents to know the stress we’re under,” the transportation director said.
Hudson, the union president, said it’s not just a matter of pay. “A lot of people will just look at compensation and say that’s the reason. I don’t think it’s all compensation,” Hudson said. “There’s other issues. I think for the longest time, the educational staff professionals within all local school districts have been underappreciated. They’ve been overlooked. If you took the pulse of a lot of my members, the common statement that they’re going to make is, we just feel defeated, we feel downtrodden. We don’t feel like anybody cares. No one’s looking out for us. We’ve got paraprofessionals that are getting stabbed with pencils and feces thrown at them. This has all been on several news articles, this isn’t something that people don’t see or haven’t heard before. Our paraprofessionals and our bus drivers have been hit with seat belt buckles in the face. It’s not just the pay. I think sometimes it’s the working conditions. But there’s a lot of legality involved in that because sometimes you’ve got ESE students that are protected by their IEPs and by their disability.” Exceptional Student Education enrollees each have an Individualized Education Program the district devises in conjunction with the student’s parents, and must abide to.
“But there are things that the district and the unions can do to come together and try and solve these problems via the collective bargaining process, making policies that protect staff,” Hudson continued. “That’s going to be one of my priorities going into our open book negotiations for next year. I would like to see language put in our contract that protects bus drivers, bus aides and paraprofessionals and teachers.” Volusia County is currently working on just such language–to protect employees from violent students. “It’s an issue that that doesn’t get talked about a lot, but it needs to be talked about and it has an effect on employee morale. Students with disabilities need their protections and they are protected. But who is protecting the staff? Who is protecting the teachers? How far do we go before we draw a line and say, this this is it. We won’t take anymore? Enough is enough? I don’t know where that line is. But I know as president of FESPA I’m going to start asking the hard questions, and if I have to draw a line in the sand, so be it.”
Hudson is not seeing the school district in an adversarial position. Union-district relations have tended to be cordial, if not friendly, for many years, with tensions arising from time to time as part of the normal negotiating process. But the two sides have found ways to work things out. The district’s chief negotiator is now Paul peacock, the assistant superintendent for operations and former Indian Trails Middle School principal. He has replaced Jerry Copeland, the crusty and fearsome negotiator the district retained for many years, and who retired last year.
“It was a great night for Flagler County Schools last night,” Peacock himself told the school board earlier this week, in the wake of the negotiating session with FESPA that led to the pay increases. “We’re staying way ahead of the curve,” he said, referring to Florida’s voter-approved $15-an-hour minimum wage, which the state will reach by 2026. “There’s a lot of happy individuals we had great dialogue. You know, with our union, there’s a collaborative spirit we’re looking forward to going forward with the full book after the first of the year.” (The “full book” is a reference to the process every three years when collective bargaining goes through the entire contract from first to last page.)
Hudson saw the district in the same terms. “I don’t think that the district is in any way, shape or form trying to shrug that responsibility at all,” Hudson said of his priority to bring in employee protections. “I think it’s just another part of the negotiating process that has to happen. This is a slow process. And you know, a lot of times the parents and the public don’t understand that process. But the contract protects the staff members from things happening that would potentially violate violate due process, and it’s my job as the president to protect that language. I protect the contract. A lot of times people think that oh, unions are protecting bad employees. Well, that’s not the case. I don’t protect the bad employee. If an employee deserves to be released, then that’s going to happen as long as the district follows progressive discipline. And that’s what that contract is there for. I want the best possible employees working with our students in Flagler County that we can get, and it’s my job and my responsibility as the president to make sure that that happens.”
About 460 of the district’s nearly 800 service employees are members of the union. But the terms the union negotiates benefits all employees, whether they’re in the union or not, even though non-union employees are not paying union dues.