Seven months into bargaining over salary schedules, the Flagler County school district and its two employee unions broke off their last round of negotiations Thursday evening as the two unions declared an impasse.
When it appeared that the school board’s team was not willing to negotiate so much as to put off further negotiations until February, said Brian Phillips, a member of the negotiating team representing the teachers and the service employees, “we decided at that point that we were fed up with the board’s inaction and inability to bring a compensation proposal to the table. So at that point the FECA and the FESPA decided that they would declare impasse.”
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The FCEA is the Flagler County Educators Association. Some 60 percent of the district’s 850 teachers are members. The FESPA is the Flagler Educational Support Personnel Association, which represents support staff such as bus drivers, custodians, secretaries and kitchen staff. About 40 percent of those 800 employees are members of the union. But the bargaining units negotiate for all employees.
“The biggest issue tonight was the fact that the association specifically came to the table ready to negotiate,” Phillips said, “and the quote that was given to us from the board’s team was that it has been decided that we would give a $600 bonus. Come back to the table in February. Our frustration was we were supposed to be sitting at the table negotiating, and apparently the board decided they were ‘The Decider,’ to quote George Bush.”
Mike Judd, the district’s senior director of school operations and a member of its bargaining unit, disputes the characterizations of “inaction” or unwillingness to negotiate. On Thursday night, the district did, in fact, offer a year-end $600 bonus to all employees—teachers and service personnel—“not as a full settlement for the year,” Judd said, “but until we were able to get better financial information in January and February. At that time we would continue negotiating for a potential step raises or anything like that. So at this point we were going to do the bonus.”
Direct bargaining between the district and the two unions is over. Either side can now ask for a disinterested federal mediator. If that fails, an impasse hearing before a special master would follow. That could take 60 to 90 days. The two sides will make their case. The special master would then make a recommendation to the school board, which can ratify, amend or reject it.
Flagler County Teacher Raises, 1995-2010
Here’s the point of contention: The FCEA and the FESPA were asking the district to abide by its contractual obligation to award employees annual “step” salary increases: for every year’s experience, an employee would get additional pay—roughly, 2 percent. The increase keeps pace with inflation. (The two unions don’t consider those increases salary raises such as the 8 percent a year teachers got in the middle part of the past decade or the 4.5 percent they got in 2007-08.)
Invoking a clause in the contract that gives it an out during economic uncertainties, the district declined giving employees that salary increase in 2008-09. They got a 2 percent increase last year. But no increase again this year. To the two unions, that’s two such “step” increases they want made up. Phillips says the district has been peddling the same fears of financial calamity year after year, yet every year for the past three years the district’s reserves have grown by $2 million—ironically, over the same period that the district has denied teachers their “step” raises.
To the unions, the board is breaking its contractual pledge while building up its reserves at its employees’ expense. The unions have some numbers to show for their claim: the district’s reserves were around $4 million two years ago and at $7 million just last spring. They’re at $8.4 million today. The district this year got a $2.6 million federal aid allocation specifically designed to underwrite salaries. That allocation is in addition to the $5.4 million in federal stimulus fund the district received for last year and this year. That amount will run out and won’t be replaced, but voters approved the extension of a small supplemental property tax to fund essential needs in the district, ensuring the continuation of $2 million a year in revenue for the next two years. Combining it all, Phillips says the district has close to $10 million from which it should pay teachers their annual increases.
The cost of those increases is $2.1 million for each “step.” Phillips says if the district agreed to the unions’ proposal, the entire cost would be $2.1 million. Judd disagrees. He says the $2.1 million is the cost of only one “step.” If both steps are included, the cost would exceed $4 million, recurring every year.
Speaking publicly and frequently on the matter, school board members have said that the district is not in a position to make that sort of commitment at the moment, using reserve dollars, since the salary increases would be recurring every year. Using reserves for operating funds is considered risky management. The board met in executive session on Monday (Nov. 30) and decided to make the $600 offer.
“Really, truthfully, it was not meant as an insult at all. It was meant to be a good faith gesture,” board member Colleen Conklin said Friday afternoon. “Our folks have been really patient, they have not had a step increase for the last two years, they’ve worked with us,” but by the same token. Conklin added, the district has not laid off any teachers, as ,many other districts have. (Flagler has either added to or kept its enrollment steady). “We did everything that we could to keep the family together.”
Phillips says the board is mischaracterizing the cost. It’s true that granting employees a step increase would cost more money. But it’s just as true that dozens of employees retire every year from the top of the salary scale, while younger ones are hired at much lower salaries. (A starting teacher with a BA makes $38,200. A teacher with a BA and 22 years’ experience makes $57,700. Surprisingly, the difference in salary for teachers with master’s degrees and doctorates is negligible: a teacher with 22 years’ experience and a doctorate makes $63,177, or just 9.5 percent more than the teacher with a BA.) Meanwhile, Phillips says, employees’ workloads—teachers and service employees—have increased.
“We’re not asking to break the bank, we’re not asking for more than what the board already agreed” to pay employees, Phillips said. He added that should economic realities prove as dire as the school board fears, the two unions would return to the negotiating table next year ready to make concessions in line with those realities.
Should the impasse lead to a special master’s recommendation, the fact that that recommendation is forwarded to the school board appears to weigh the scale heavily in favor of the district. Florida law, in other words—a historically anti-labor state where teacher unions these days are particularly reviled by the right—doesn’t make the impasse process quite objective: the school board is not directly part of the district’s bargaining unit, but that unit has been getting its orders from the superintendent, who gets her orders from the school board. Ultimately, employees’ fate rests with the school board, whatever a mediator decides. (In August, the Duvall County School Board voted 4-3 to break its contract with its teachers union by invoking a “financial urgency” clause in the contract: there wasn’t much teachers could do but do what they’re doing in Flagler County.)
Politically, however, it may be difficult for the board to reject an objective mediator’s recommendations, assuming those recommendations go against the board’s current stance. A mediator’s recommendation would also give board members political cover to do what they don’t want to do, since they can always say at election time that they had no choice.
Speculation aside, the only certainty at the moment is that salary negotiations won’t be settled for months, with consequences that won’t necessarily be measurable. “Impasses certainly affect the morale and work environment of our folks,” Judd said, “so from that aspect it’s something that’s definitely not pleasant to go through.”
The unions are also likely to let the school board know more immediately what they think, though it’s not yet clear what means they’ll choose.
The bargaining team for the FCEA Katie Hansen, the union’s president and a teacher at Indian Trails Middle School; Jessica Clark, who teaches at Rymfire Elementary, and Maureen Bowers, a speech and language pathologist at Flagler Palm Coast High School. The FESPA team had Becky Harper, president of the union and an employee at the Flagler Technical Institute, George Pines, a bus driver, and
Teresa Cappaso, also from the technical institute.
The district’s unit included Finance Director Tom Tant, Instructional Director (pre-K through grade 8) Denise Haymes, Personnel Director Harriett Holiday, Rymfire Principal Paula St. Francis, Matanzas High School Principal Chris Pryor, and Judd.