Negotiations between the Flagler County school district and its teacher union can be tense and unpredictable. But last November 10, both sides signed a memorandum of understanding settling all issues for this year’s contract, including agreement on how teachers would be evaluated under a new, controversial merit-pay system. Teachers ratified the agreement three weeks ago. The school board was to ratify it this morning at an open meeting held at Matanzas High School’s Pirates Theater.
It did, and it didn’t.
The half measure doesn’t affect students’ school days directly, at least not yet. But it could have dire consequences if relations between the district and the union sour, just as the two sides are working toward establishing next year’s schedule, which will affect such things as the length of the school day, the programs to be offered, and the number of teachers that will hired or fired. After last year’s negotiations, the school day was shortened and 41 teaching positions were cut.
The board this morning held a long closed-door session with Jerry Copeland, its negotiator, to discuss its strategy. Florida law allows such closed meetings as long as the discussion is limited to bargaining strategy. When the board convened in open session, it voted to ratify the contract with teachers—with an exception.
The board tabled for future discussions a crucial portion of the contract that both sides had agreed to previously: since the merit-based evaluation system is new (and extremely complicated), the union was asking that in its first year, no teacher be rated, overall, lower than “needs improvement,” out of four ratings, “needs improvement” being the third, with “unsatisfactory” falling below it. (Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the cut-off mark as “unsatisfactory.” See the fuller explanation in the comment below.)
“It is a new tool, the administrators are still getting training on how to use the tool,” Katie Hansen, president of the Flagler County Educators Association, said. “So much of it is untested and unexplainable.” Other districts, she said, have agreed to similar terms.
When the board tabled that portion of the contract, Hansen was livid.
“To say that I’m disappointed in the actions of the board this morning in terms of the FCEA contract is putting it extremely mildly,” she said. “As I’m sure you do on your side, when FCEA puts their trust to me to go to the table, I go on their behalf, I bargain what is best for them, as I’m sure you direct your team to do. The employees, the teachers of Flagler County, ratified this contract as a whole. The same was expected of the school board this morning. As far as the FCEA is concerned, the district has bargained in bad faith, and has potentially committed an unfair labor practice. Unless you vote on the package as a whole. Frankly, we go back to the table on Thursday, and there’s a whole lot of distrust now, moving forward through this process.”
The board did not address Hansen directly when she spoke. Toward the end of the meeting, board member Colleen Conklin said: “We did not violate the trust. You’ve made an assumption. You don’t know what the conversation was just yet, and I hope that after this meeting you get more details about what this conversation is, and we absolutely want to work with you on the memorandum of understanding. The language which was there right now could not be used by Doe”—the Department of Education—“we were specifically notified of that and we would be in violation of it. But we absolutely discussed in great detail the concern. It is valid. We are working on the language. That’s why it was tabled.” She added: “We’ll be coming back and working on language that works for everybody.”
By mid-afternoon, however, Hansen was not placated, and was all but certain that the bargaining session scheduled for Thursday would be called off. “I’m not sure how we’re going to move forward,” Hansen said. “This is new territory for me I’ve never had a situation where the school board bifurcated the contract.”
None of this directly affects the day-to-day operation of schools from students’ perspectives: teachers will still be teaching, as they have all along, even though their contract hadn’t been ratified.
But a souring of relations between the union and the district can have serious consequences on the kind of services students can expect, if, for example, either side chooses to compromise less. The district did just that last spring, when it cited financial urgencies to justify revamping the school day for middle and high school students, reducing it by 45 minutes and eliminating about 41 teaching positions, to save $2 million. Students have been feeling the effects of that vast change all year, and may yet pay consequences of the change in their test scores—which, in turn, will now begin to affect teacher pay.
Teachers have been feeling the effects of the revamped school day, too, since the district moved teachers’ planning periods (when teachers have one period during the day to plan their work, without students) outside the regularly scheduled class hours. The move was unpopular among teachers, who want it reversed next year. In any case, the agreement to have the planning period outside the regular school day was for one year only. The two sides would have to sign an agreement renewing that arrangement for next year.
The union and the district were to begin negotiating that issue, and others, at Thursday’s bargaining session. That’s now in question.
School Superintendent Janet Valentine said the district’s finances are still “critical,” and that moving the planning period back inside the school day would entail yet again hiring extra teachers that the district cannot afford.
Last year the union said the district could use some of its $9 million reserves to preserve the longer school day and save jobs. The district countered that it was needing to use its reserves anyway, and that those reserves would have been cut by half had some staff cuts not taken place.
The district’s reserves are falling anyway, Finance Director Tom Tant said. The district started the year with a reserve of $8.9 million. By year’s end, the reserves will be at $6.2 million, Tant said, falling further next year. “We knew that, we planned on that,” Tant said. “Next year it’ll probably decline to $5.8 million.” The reserve had been increased in large part thanks to the Obama administration’s stimulus package, which channeled $7 million to the district over two years. That money is gone. The state, too, cut its contributions to the district.
Before this morning’s open meeting—but after the closed-door session–Copeland was asked about the prospects of further budget cuts for next year. “Right now,” he said, “we’re not looking at having tio cut at this time. Now, we may want to put quotation marks around at this time.” The hang-up is that planning period.
Meanwhile, principals are having to plan next year’s schedules, and are lacking clarity on how to proceed.