Just as administrators are planning next year’s school schedules—and just as principals are evaluating their teachers—relations between the Flagler County school district and its teacher union have reached a new low. In an unprecedented vote on Tuesday, the school board rescinded its own ratification of the teacher contract it had approved two weeks earlier. The school board cited a technicality. The union sees bad faith piled on top of bad faith.
It didn’t help that the school board took its vote during an early-morning meeting at Flagler Palm Coast High School, when virtually no teacher could attend since school was in session.
Two weeks ago, in another move—and another early-morning meeting—that had angered the union, the board had carved out a portion of the contract it didn’t want to approve, tabled it, then approving the rest of the contract. Tuesday, the board said what the union had argued two weeks earlier: the carve-out was not allowed. Either the board approved the whole contract or rejected it all. And so it did.
That means teachers are working under outdated contract language that does not include portions required by a new state law that set out how teachers are to be evaluated in accordance with a new merit-pay system Florida approved last year. The district’s negotiators and the union are scheduled to go back to the bargaining table next week. That may not happen. The union filed an unfair labor practice claim against the district after its vote two weeks ago. It may file another one after its vote yesterday. That hasn’t yet been decided. And when the two sides do negotiate again, both sides fear that an impasse is a real possibility, as neither side appears willing to give ground right about now.
That may change: posturing is part of negotiating tactics on both sides. But for now the two sides are in trenches rather than on side benches.
“I think we’re going to end up at impasse because I don’t think the teachers are going to go along with it,” Sue Dickinson, school chairs the school board, said, referring to the contract language the board wants to include, ostensibly in accordance with state law. Impasse is declared when the two sides, after negotiating sessions, cannot come to an agreement. The players then move to a quasi-judicial setting, though that setting heavily favors the school board: the union takes its appeal to the board, though an administrative judge can also be the hearing officer. Either way, it’s a messy, adversarial process that, unlike the search for consensus during negotiations, creates a winning side and a losing side—and raw feelings.
“We’ve never been there. Please, be clear, we don’t want to be there,” Janet Valentine, the school superintendent, said. “We’re going into this trying to negotiate in good faith, and I know that the teacher union is going to do that, too.”
Some 15 months ago the union actually declared impasse during negotiations, when the board was not agreeing to giving back so-called “step” pay increases (awarded each year as teachers add a year’s experience to their tenure) it had skipped to save money previously. The board gave in, and impasse was averted. Whether that happens this time is unclear.
“Honestly I’m not sure how we’re going to move through this process,” Katie Hansen, president of the Flagler County Educators Association, the union that represents 500 teachers, said. “How am I to believe that they are bargaining in good faith? And that’s the sense I’m getting from my 500 embers. How are we to believe what they say, and now how are we to believe anything that they sign their names.”
The heart of the matter is a new state law that requires teachers to be elaborately and strictly evaluated, and awarded merit pay if they qualify, or fired if they persistently receive unsatisfactory evaluations. The state law is in part a reflection of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, an education initiative that puts more emphasis on teacher performance. Race to the Top leaves it up to states to devise their own evaluation methods. Florida adopted a more radical model that, first, is enormously complicated—and thick with time-consuming paperwork that actually takes away from teachers’ and administrators’ time devoted to students and education. Second, the system puts a premium on standardized tests as a measuring tool, though classroom performance and a series of other measures are also considered.
Teachers can be ultimately rated four ways: highly effective, effective, needs improvement, and unsatisfactory. Getting an unsatisfactory rating two years in a row could lead to being fired. It’s not an entirely new system: bad teachers could always be fired. But by agreement with the union they had to be afforded their due process first, which meant being given various chances to improve. The new law short-circuits that process, heavily shifting power to administrators.
The major difference at the heart of the proposed contract was this: the union was willing to go with the new system, but with one amendment in the first year that the evaluation tool was used: no teacher should be rated unsatisfactory. The union wanted that exception only for the first year, because the system is so new, so complicated, and administrators and teachers so unfamiliar with it, that it did not want some teachers unfairly branded with what could be a damning evaluation in the very first year of its use, since one more such evaluation could spell the end of that teacher’s career.
Some board members are sympathetic. “The truth is, we understand some of the points they’re making,” Colleen Conklin, the board member, said. “Some of the points they’re making about the evaluation instrument are valid. So we were going that they’d come back to the table and have that conversation about—how do we make this a win-win for everybody? We can’t break the law.”
Hansen, who also concedes that the exception the union is asking for is a “technicality” that could raise concerns on the board’s part, says that the school board’s negotiators had, in fact, agreed to the so-called “memorandum of understanding” laying out the union’s exception to the law. The board was then presented with the MOU. And only then realized that it would run counter to state law. It was a serious misstep on the board’s part: the error could have been avoided had the issue been talked about at the negotiating table. Instead, the board essentially shredded the MOU and said: start over.
“It should make them happy, because apparently what we are being told is that we need to go back,” Conklin said. “So if it goes to impasse it’s going to end up having to go to impasse, but we legally cannot approve what they’re asking us to approve. There are—listen, there are a lot of educational laws that I don’t like, that are passed. But the bottom line at the end of the day is, we’ve all taken an oath as an elected official: to uphold the law.”