Florida Keys News
Thursday, March 1, 2012
School District vindicated in union case

The state Public Employees Relations Commission has dismissed the local union's charges against the School District of unfair labor practices, a fight that started when administrators were forced to make deep budget cuts last summer.

At issue was Superintendent Jesus Jara's decision to freeze pay raises and impose seven days of furloughs for all district employees, which the School Board approved.

"Competent substantial evidence" supports the district's budget cuts that affected wages, hours and terms of employment, the three-person PERC panel said in an eight-page decision released Monday.

The commission upheld a hearing officer's Dec. 16 recommendation that found the district had acted well within state law.

"We have prevailed," said Jara on Wednesday. "We followed the contract. The board never violated the contract. This is a big win for the School District and my administration."

The United Teachers of Monroe has 30 days from the date of the ruling, Feb. 27, in which to appeal.

Union President Holly Hummell-Gorman didn't return a message for comment.

The threshold issue is whether the School District had the right to reduce the 2011-12 budget without first returning to the bargaining table for further negotiations.

Teachers will lose about 3.6 percent of their wages to the furloughs, along with having a once-planned 1.5 percent raise frozen.

As interim superintendent last summer, Jara inherited a budget that already had been slashed by $7 million under the direction of former Superintendent Joe Burke.

In July, Jara announced the district was short an additional $3.6 million and had no choice but to trim teachers' pay through seven furlough days -- instead of the three to which teachers had agreed.

The School District hired 40-year veteran labor attorney Robert Norton of Miami to handle the union's charges.

Jara has said that the district needed an expert and that the $25,000 tab paid to Norton last year was well spent.

Union leaders said they were blindsided at a July meeting with Jara -- a meeting held to correct previous Sunshine Law violations.

There, Norton, who did all the talking, announced that the district was "wiping the slate clean," dumping the prior agreements over furlough days and raises that were documented as Letters of Understanding, and starting fresh with a new list of cuts.

PERC agreed that the district acted properly, since administrators "could reasonably fear" that any agreements tainted by Sunshine Law violations could later be attacked.

The commission wrote: "Under the peculiar circumstances presented here, discarding the (prior Letters of Understanding) and returning to the bargaining table was consistent with the School District's duty to bargain in good faith and the proper course of conduct."


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