Seven months after starting negotiations and five days after declaring an impasse, Flagler County schools’ two employee unions this morning reached a deal with the district that would ensure the restoration of two years’ experience-based salary raises, beginning in January. The district skipped those so-called “step” salary increases in 2008-09 and again this year in attempts to save money. The deal will cost the district an additional $1.2 million this year, and $2.4 million next year.
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The agreement would be a major victory for the unions, and an equally considerable concession by the district, which had proposed giving all its employees a one-time $600 bonus before the holidays and return to the negotiating table in January or February. The district portrayed the effort as a good-faith measure that put more dollars in employees’ hands. The unions rejected the move as a slap in the face and another delaying tactic.
The unions have argued that the district has ample dollars to make the deal, since it’s sitting on more than $8 million in reserves. The reserves have, in fact, doubled in the past three years, though had they not, the district’s prudence would have been put in doubt. The district’s reserves are, by state recommendations, supposed to be at least 5 percent of the operating budget. It’s slightly more than that. The district also received $2.6 million in federal dollars this year to offset personnel costs, in addition to the $5.6 million it received in 2009 as part of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package (which helped save 25,000 teachers’ jobs in Florida alone). Both federal and reserve pots will be used to pay the increased salaries, which will apply to the district’s 850 teachers and its 800 support personnel such as custodians, bus drivers, secretaries, cooks and the like.
The agreement is contingent on ratification by the two unions—a vote is scheduled on Dec. 16—and the school board.
The union and the district also agreed to an early retirement package. Teachers who have worked in Flagler County at least 10 years, who have worked a total of 30 years or are 62 may choose to retire with a one-time bonus equivalent to 30 percent of their base salary. A teacher with a bachelor’s degree and the maximum pay under the current contract makes $57,677. That teacher would make $60,400 with a master’s degree and $63,177 with a doctorate. So the one-time bonus would be roughly $17,000 to $19,000.
In a message by the Flagler County Educators Association and the Flagler Educational Support Personnel Association originally posted on FlaglerLive, the two unions today asked their membership that as “many of you that can, still attend the school board meeting tonight, wearing red. We are asking that you come to support us as we speak to the board to thank them for treating our bargaining teams, and the employees we represent, with respect by bringing us compensation offers that put employees back where we belong on the salary schedule.”
The two sides went from stalemate to resolution very swiftly, especially after the stalemate declaration by the unions provoked an outpouring of support for the employees—and the unions were preparing to level considerable pressure on the board. On the other hand, the deal would not have been possible had the district not dipped into its reserves, which are not meant to be used for recurring costs. Beginning next year, those recurring costs of $2.4 million will have no dedicated source of revenue. But by focusing on early retirement and including some measures to keep new employees’ salaries in check, the district hopes to make up a large part of the money.
“We did bring in an outside negotiator to help us resolve this issue, to look at all the revenue sources that we had,” Janet Valentine, the school superintendent, said Tuesday afternoon. “We know that we’re going to have to go into reserves. We’re going to move $1.1 million that’s been currently taken out of the jobs fund”—that’s the federal aid—“ we’ll be paying the steps out of the jobs funds dollars for the remainder of this year. We can also take the early retirement incentives out of the jobs funds we’ve received from the feds, which is $2.6 million.”
The district hopes to save money by hiring new teachers at the lower end of the salary scale, and ensuring that, even though a teacher may have many years of experience, the starting point of that teacher’s salary in Flagler County will not necessarily be on the salary scale of a teacher who’s put in all of his or her experience in the county. For example, a teacher coming into Flagler County with 10 years’ experience in, say, Iowa, won’t be starting here at $44,205—the salary for a teacher who’s put in 10 straight years in Flagler—but closer to $38,200, which is the salary for a beginning teacher. How much actual experience will affect the salary is unclear.
The district plans to save money through other means that have already been in place. This summer, for example, all schools will be closed but one, where summer programs and administrative work will be consolidated. That saves energy. The district is also pushing wider savings in energy and resources, such as usage of paper and supplies, although those savings pale in comparison with personnel costs, which account for well over 80 percent of the district’s costs.
The larger saving may be an intangible: for the last half year, school employees’ morale has been falling, adding to other stresses on the system resulting from constant budget anxieties, fear of layoffs and the like. Settling the salary issue between the district and its unions doesn’t end the anxiety. It merely diminishes it. Later this month, and again next year, the state could very well declare, as it has in recent years, that its revenue projections are lower than planned. School districts would then be compelled to make additional budget cuts. So far, Flagler County has avoided making personnel cuts. Yet another round of required cuts, however, may not spare employees and instructional or extra-curricular programs.
Those issues are beyond the district’s and the union’s control, however. When it came to matters somewhat within their control, the two sides, after some brinkmanship, found a way to make things work, at least for the immediate future. “I feel confident with this, I really do,” Valentine said. “I feel we were able to come to agreement and reach consensus on the fact that we knew two steps would be outside our budget means if we were going to pay that retroactively, and we also knew how important it was for all of our staff.”
The contract language would apply from the moment the new contract is ratified by both sides through July 1, 2013. The agreement over salary schedules applies only through June 30, 2011 (though the second salary “step” increase kicks in July 1 that year) while the early retirement incentives would apply only through June 2012.