The Monroe County teachers' union Thursday argued before a state arbitrator over the School District's decisions to mandate seven unpaid days for teachers and staff and raise health insurance premiums.
But it's not the cuts that the union leaders oppose, rather the severity of them.
"They want very painful health insurance cuts," said Steve Fischer, a bargaining specialist for the Florida Education Association, on behalf of the United Teachers of Monroe. "The evidence will show it has nothing to do with rising insurance costs. It has everything to do with a district that wants to save money."
Thursday's hearing was over the union's decision this year to declare impasse, deadlocking negotiations with the district after a tumultuous year of labor relations that soured to the point that former superintendent Jesus Jara blamed it for his failure to win the job of schools chief to an outsider.
The School Board this summer hired Mark Porter over Jara in a 4-1 vote.
At the district's main offices in Key West, Special Magistrate Martin Soll, a law professor from Miami, heard the testimony and accepted documents as evidence while a court reporter recorded the proceeding.
Soll will issue a decision later this year, one that isn't binding.
Both sides agreed to give their closing statements in writing by Oct. 18.
"I'm convinced that the appeal is a waste of time and money," said Robert Norton, the veteran labor attorney hired last year by the district to deal with the union negotiations. "But it is the right of everybody to litigate until the end. So be it."
Administrators maintain that they did what they had to do in order to stave off a possible takeover by the state Department of Education, had the district's savings dipped below 2 percent of projected revenues.
The furlough days saved the district $1.4 million, and the frozen raises saved about $340,000. In all, the reductions in teacher pay added up to about $3 million.
Jara's cuts to teacher pay and benefits were twice upheld by the state agency that oversees public employee unions, but UTM has a pending appeal on those, too.
The union's leaders cannot accept the fact that the budget cuts were made, Norton said Thursday.
"The School Board appreciates and respects its teachers and its support personnel," said Norton. "The board on the other hand has a responsibility to the taxpayers. It has a responsibility for the general welfare of this district, the students and parents. When they were confronted with financial crisis, we have in our contract a way that when there is a budget reduction, to take actions."
Porter watched the morning portion of Thursday's hearing, but wasn't a part of the district's representation since he wasn't a part of the budget cuts made last year.
Fischer put on the record that Jara was "the board's third choice," after the finalists for the job were interviewed.
Teachers had agreed to take three furlough days before the start of last school year, but then-Superintendent Jara ordered seven for teachers and administrators alike.
Then, health premium contributions by employee were increased by 9 percent and the district stopped paying any of the premium for retirees over 65. The union offered a 5 percent increase and a proposal to modify the retirees' payment rather than cut it.
Fischer said, "The most egregious part of that is at the expense of retirees over age 65. They had a contract with these people, they made a promise to them. Now that they're over 65 they want to take that away."