The whistling incident might best illustrate how tense and frayed relations have become between the Flagler County school district and its teacher union. It took place this afternoon, a little more than an hour into the first bargaining session between the two sides since the school board earlier this month rescinded its vote ratifying the teachers’ 2012 contract and the union charged “bad faith” in return.
Some 50 teachers had turned up to back up their negotiating team, opposite seven district administrators and their chief negotiator, Jerry Copeland. They were all crammed into the conference room adjacent to the school superintendent’s office, on the third floor of the Government Services Building—a room best fit for half the numbers in attendance.
Discussion had turned to a detail about teacher evaluations. A few teachers spoke up to clarify a point. And then it happened.
Copeland whistled—a four-toned, rising whistle not unlike the sort blown out to get a dog’s attention.
“Please don’t do that,” Katie Hansen, president of the Flagler County Educators Association and the lead negotiator, shot back immediately.
“Pardon me?” Copeland said.
“Please don’t do that,” Hansen repeated.
“I’m not a dog. I don’t prefer to be whistled at,” Hansen said.
“I wasn’t whistling at you. We had conversations going on all over the room,” Copeland said, prompting Will Vargas, a service unit leader with the Florida Educators Association and Hansen’s co-negotiator, to tell Copeland that “the rest of our members aren’t dogs, either.”
It hadn’t been a pleasant afternoon—or fortnight—for either side. They’re negotiating amendments to the current year’s teacher contract. They’re hung up on one issue: how teachers are to be evaluated by year’s end, in line with a new state law that requires districts to award merit pay to teachers while making it easier for principals to fire them when they under-perform. The system relies on a complicated set of criteria that come down to four ratings summing up a teacher’s evaluation: Highly Effective, Effective, Needs Improvement, and Unsatisfactory. Two unsatisfactory ratings in a row (over two years) essentially result in that teacher’s firing.
The teachers union isn’t opposed to the ratings. It’s opposed to the “unsatisfactory” rating kicking in the very first year, because the system is so complicated and the consequences so grave that first-year quirks with the new system shouldn’t count against a teacher’s career. The union is asking that teachers be spared the “unsatisfactory” verdict this year, and this year only, or what remains of it. They’re fine with it kicking in by next school year. Negotiators, including the district, had agreed to that arrangement last month. It was ratified by the union. But the school board, after getting counsel from the state Department of Education, wouldn’t accept it, citing a state law that ostensibly forbids such an arrangement.
After the board rejected the contract because it couldn’t merely excise the part about evaluations, the teachers union felt insulted and threatened to file an unfair labor practice. But it agreed to return to the negotiating table this afternoon to work out a new agreement.
It started poorly. The union wanted the negotiating session to be recorded, so that an official record exists, and future disagreements over what was—or wasn’t—said could more easily be resolved. Copeland refused. So while anyone outside the negotiating team could record the meeting, no one on either team could do so under the pretense of providing an official record.
After that disagreement, words flew between the two sides, with more accusations of bad faith, of feeling insulted and disrespected. “I’m not hard of hearing here Will,” Copeland told Vargas.
“I’m sorry, but we’ve been insulted a lot over the last couple of weeks,” Vargas fired back.
For all the wrangling—it’s what bargaining sessions are about, after all—there was what looked like some progress: an hour into the session the union appeared ready to concede that the fourth criteria (“unsatisfactory”) could be allowed in the first year if that teacher doesn’t complete a “Teacher Success Plan”—a plan worked out between teacher and principal to specify what improvements must be made. Copeland offered that compromise.
But the union had a condition of its own: it wanted the Teacher Success Plan’s criteria to be more objectively defined, so that its outcomes didn’t depend on the whims of principals, but on defined objectives. “If I’m on a success plan, each principal within the district has their own version of of failing,” Hansen said. It also wanted to ensure that a teacher has a chance to complete the success plan before the annual evaluation is completed.
“Now it seems we are negotiating what a success plan is, which is a whole new topic,” Copeland said.
It was. But it also appeared to be the district’s best opportunity to have its way without continuing to lose the teachers’ trust. At 7 p.m., Copeland and his team retreated to talk about the proposal among themselves, the third such break in today’s session.
The negotiating climate looked hopeful by then, and a resolution seemed imminent. At 6:53 p.m., the two sides had even exchanged the very first, faint joke of the session—by then dragging into its third hour—when Copeland asked what a certain type of printed bullet was called, Hansen described it as an “indented bullet,” and Chris Pryor, the Matanzas High School principal and a member of the district’s negotiating team, elicited laughter when he referred to the bullet as “a smaller caliber.” Even that joke, of course, was not free of irony.
The district’s negotiating team returned to the table at 7:31 p.m. But the mood had darkened again, with the district balking at the union’s qualifiers and the union returning to what Hansen called her “frustration” at the district reneging on a previous agreement–when Baker County, she said, agreed to that same exception, with Copeland negotiating that deal, too. Copeland said that wasn’t the case: the disputed wording was scratched out in Baker, he said. He then made a remarkable statement: that there was a “gentleman’s agreement” between him and the union, ensuring that there would be no “unsatisfactory” evaluations this year regardless. Vargas, however, confirmed through email and his phone that the Baker board had, in fact, ratified the contract language with the disputed exception in writing.
Just before 8, the union asked for another break. The two sides reconvened at 8:20 p.m. The union made yet another proposal: it would go along with the district’s condition, agreeing to the “unsatisfactory” rating staying in place, but only if a teacher did not attain a “majority” of the criteria set out in his or her improvement plan ahead of the final evaluation. A teacher would have a 90-day success plan, which works out to a probation period. (There are only about 10 teachers currently in the middle of a success plan.) The district took that proposal and went behind closed doors, re-emerging at 8:28 p.m.
By then, the air conditioning in the room had been turned off. Automatically.
And just before 9 p.m., the two sides reached agreement.
Here’s the wording of the Memorandum of Understanding both sides agreed to at 9:20 p.m.:
Memorandum of Understanding
FCEA Counter-Proposal – March 12, 2012
Come now the following parties: the School Board of Flagler County and the Flagler County Educators Association agree to the following stipulations:
- No teacher in the district will receive less than “Needs Improvement” or “Developing” in the final rating of the summative instrument except and unless such rating is the direct result of failing to successfully complete a Teacher Success Plan during the first year (2011-2012 school year) of the Flagler County Teacher Evaluation System implementation.
- “Failure to successfully complete” shall be determined by meeting all of the following criteria:
- Teacher has been on Success Plan with support from administration for at least 45 work days prior to observation
- Teacher has met less than a majority of the goals specified in the Success Plan at the time of the observation.
- The expectation of the teacher on a Success Plan is to meet all of the goals specified in the Success Plan. If the teacher fails to meet all of the goals of the Success Plan, he/she will be placed on a subsequent Success Plan. Failure to meet the goals of the subsequent Success Plan will lead to the teacher receiving an “Unsatisfactory” on the evaluation and placement on a 90-day probation as per Florida Statute 1012.34.
- The parties are mutually working on an appeals process to resolve data disputes regarding Value Added Model (VAM) scores. Once the parties mutually agree to an official appeals process, the bargaining teams for both sides will reconvene and tentatively agree on the appeals process subject to ratification.
- Pursuant to the agreement on the above items, all other tentative agreements in the 2011-2012 negotiations are hereby reinstated for teacher and School Board ratification.
Tentatively agreed to on _________________________________________
Katie Hansen, FCEA President
Will Vargas, Lighthouse Service Unit Executive Director
Denise Haymes, FCSB – Curriculum
Jerry Copeland, Chief Negotiator FCSB