Teachers are not badly paid in Flagler County. A beginning teacher makes $38,000 a year. A teacher with 10 years’ experience, without a degree more advanced than a BA, is at $45,000. That’s for working 40 weeks, and it’s well above the median salary for the county. Benefits are good, too.
And the district is among the few counties in the state that’s managed to ride through the housing crash and record local unemployment without having to lay off teachers in any of the past three years. The district did that through a combination of fiscal prudence and modest but continued enrollment gains, which draw down more state dollars. The prudence kicked in when, in November 2007–just when the crash was beginning–the district and the teachers’ union negotiated a three-year contract that provided smaller raises than the 8 to 10 percent annual raises employees enjoyed in a previous contract.
Flagler County Teacher Raises, 1995-2010
More prudence is required in the next two years as the district will face a slump in revenue that could total more than $6 million as federal stimulus money runs out, local tax revenue falls, mandatory class-size requirements kick in and the state, as is almost certain come late fall or early winter, reduces its per-student allocation. The district could not withstand those hits without dipping into its $7 million reserves for the coming year. But after this year, the reserves will be close to gone.
One of the factors costing the district more money are the constitutionally required class-size rules. This fall, class sizes in core subjects (such as English and math but not art or PE) must fall beneath a maximum threshold. The district doesn’t have the classrooms to make that work. It would have to bring back portables, which cost thousands of dollars a year each. It would also have to hire 22 extra teachers at that $38,000 rate, plus benefits. Total cost: $1.1 million, not counting the portables.
The district can’t afford it. To be more accurate: it could afford it this year by using up its reserves faster. But next year it would likely have to eliminate programs and lay-off teachers to keep a balance.
Superintendent Janet Valentine devised a plan to avoid portables and reduce salary costs. She proposes to hire 22 “associate teachers” and pair them up in regular classrooms, with other teachers. Those classrooms would have more than the minimum required number of students. But with two teachers in the room, the student-teacher ratio would actually be much lower. The associate teacher would be paid $26,000 for the year, instead of $38,000. There would be no need for portables, or further classroom disruptions.
It’s one of several reasonable plans in the works. But the associate teacher plan has to have the approval of the Flagler County Education Association, the teacher union that represents some 80 percent of the county’s teachers. The union and the district have been negotiating the new teacher contract since April. The old one expires in two days. And this is what the union is telling the district: We’ll let you have the associate teachers. But you must give us $2.4 million in raises (split over two steps). That’s what happened in St. Johns County, where teachers and the district agreed to a contract. St. Johns and Flagler are in the same seven-county union “service unit” under the Florida Education Association.
That would be $2.4 million recurring every year.The district isn’t biting. And school board members are upset that, in as difficult a financial year for virtually everyone in or out of the district, the union is holding the district hostage to what amounts to a grasping game: the union knows the associate teachers are vital to make the class-size requirements work. It’s now using the plan as leverage against the district.
“We’re not happy with the hostage-type situation, and that’s kind o f what it is,” said School Board Chairwoman Evie Shellenberger, “because we’re under a mandate to meet class size, and not knowing what’s going to happen in November, we have to be able to fill those classrooms.”
Board member Sue Dickinson echoed Shellenberger’s concerns with an eye to next year’s shortfalls. “Knowing that we’re going to have this financial cliff next year, how can we put re-occurring dollars in the budget next year?” Dickinson asked. “How do I turn to the public and say I know I’m going to spend money that I know next year I can’t cover.” One thing Dickinson said she doesn’t want to do is provide raises this year only to have to cut teachers next year to balance the budget.
“Maybe we’ve just paved the way too nicely,” she said, referring to the district health over the past few years. “Maybe we’ve covered the financial loss too well and folks are doubting and questioning what our true financial situation is. Yes, we have a fund balance, we know that.” (A fund balance is essentially the reserve pot.) “But we also know that our fund balance will not cover our loss from next year, and I certainly don’t want to be the one resp for a bankrupt school district.”
That’s not quite how Brandon Champion sees it. Champion heads Flagler County’s union. “We haven’t come right out and said that,” he said of the connection between the raise and the associate teachers. “The numbers the school board has chosen to convey to you specify numbers that may or may not have been discussed during our bargaining session,” Champion said. “That’s their right. I will not discuss specifics that may or may not have been discussed.” The district hasn’t made a salary proposal (which is to say: no raises proposed.) But the union’s concern is very legitimate: paying a fully qualified and certified teacher $12,000 less for doing the same work that other teachers are expected to do, and calling that teacher an “associate,” is “a very sticky wicket,” Champion said. But the union hasn’t ruled it out, either (as St. Johns’ example shows).
The raises the union is asking for would cost the district up to $2.4 million in addition to the $750,000 that the associate teachers would cost. So the total, recurring bill would exceed $3 million. Here’s how it works: teachers get two kinds of raises–straight percentage raises, and “step” raises. A percentage raise is self-explanatory. In the middle of the past decade, for example, teachers got 8 percent raises every year for three years in a row. That was in addition to “step” raises that they also got every year. A “step” is an automatic raise for every additional year of experience. It works out to just under 2 percent per step.
Teachers got that step raise this year. They did not get it last year. In the ongoing bargaining, the union isn’t asking for straight raises, but it’s asking for two “step” raises spread over one year, in order to make up for the lost step in 2008-09. “No matter what they put on the table, we’re asking for those steps,” Champion said. He recognizes the difficulties the district is under, and recognizes just as clearly the effects on public perception of asking for a raise in difficult economic times.
Just as legitimately, it would be unfair to portray the situation as an exclusively Flagler matter: the union and the district are in an apparent confrontational stance in large part because state lawmakers put them there when they decided to underfund class-size requirements. Local districts are having to make up millions of dollars in addition to other economic limitations. In Flagler, where every aspect of the budget has been cut except salaries, there’s no other place to look for cuts but salaries, and they’re not being cut so much as being held steady.
But insurance costs are rising so much that, without a raise, teachers will be experiencing a small cut in pay. The district’s insurance benefits are good, but at a steep price. The most popular health insurance option costs a single employee $124 a month in premiums, and $773 a month for family coverage. Next year, employees will have six plan choices ranging from a monthly premium of zero to $143 for single employees, and from $467 to $903 for family coverage. All employees, in the public or private sector, have been taking serious hits from premium increases.
So it comes down to a battle of, and for, perceptions. The union sees that $7 million pot in reserves as fair game. The district sees it as a rainy day fund with something of a hurricane ahead.
Shellenberger described herself alternately as angry and upset that the district’s preparations for the coming year have been turned into bargaining chips over salaries at a time when having and holding jobs should be the priority. “I’ve always felt like the money was not that bad. I didn’t go into it for the money. Some people do and that’s unfortunate, but I think some people–and I don’t think it’s a lot, there’s a few people out there–that simply say gimme gimme gimme, and that’s where the selfish part comes in, because I have to think about children where both parents are out of work and they’re struggling to have food on the table. We pay pretty good salaries. So it’s not going to break our backs to tighten our belts for a few years. I want to repeat: I don’t think it’s all of our people, I think it’s a small percentage of our employees that really feel this way to the point that they’re ready to go out and walk the streets about it. I think most of them look at the big picture.”
No one is talking walk-out. That would be illegal. But the district and its teachers have to reach an agreement soon. The next bargaining session hasn’t been scheduled. It’ll take place sometime in mid-to late July. (Sessions are held with Champion, Brian Phillips of the state’s union office, local union vice president Katie Hanson and two other teachers on one side, and Superintendent Valentine, Harriet Holiday, the human resources director, and three principals, on the other.
Working to both sides’ advantage is what seems to be a cordial rather than confrontational relationship between Champion and Valentine. “I’ve mainly worked with Janet this whole time,” Champion said. “She’s been very collegial and we’ve been able to work together very well. I think we’ve even made some progress in the last 16 months, even before I became president, and she and I have had the opportunity to speak regularly about issues concerning the district, whether they’re my concerns or her concerns.”