Negotiations between the Monroe County School District and the United Teachers of Monroe (UTM) are officially at an impasse, capping weeks and months of fruitless discussions marked by increasingly bitter language coming out of the camp of the employees.
Now that the impasse declaration has been made by the union, the talks are officially at an end, and an agency of the state government will now become involved.
"[School District Chief Negotiator] Robert Norton said at the last session that he would notify the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) that we have reached the point that further talks would be useless," said UTM President Holly Hummel-Gorman on Friday. "What happens next is that they'll send us a list of seven special magistrates, and from that list we'll strike three names, and the other side will strike three names, leaving us with the one who will serve as our special magistrate. A hearing will then be held, where the magistrate hears both sides, and then renders a decision."
At issue is language in the last proposed contract that allows the district to override agreed upon responsibilities, and, for example, impose furlough days on its employees, as was done two years ago and again last year.
The furlough days, sometimes referred to as days worked without compensation, are gone now, voted away by the school board last year. However, the union vehemently objects to including in new contracts the mechanism which allowed them to be imposed in the first place.
The two sides met Jan. 9 for the 26th time since April, resulting in a strongly worded press release from UTM stating that the district, through negotiator Norton, a labor law attorney, is holding some $1.2 million in state teacher salary increase money "hostage" over the issue.
Previously, the school board's chief negotiator at the collaborative bargaining sessions had been Superintendent Mark Porter. In December, however, Porter threw up his hands over his inability to break the stalemate with UTM.
During debate over the subject at Tuesday's school board meeting in Marathon, board members held fast to their position that the furlough mechanism be retained in order to deal with potential financial crises down the road. District 4 member John Dick noted the language has been in place in all employee contracts for decades.
Hummel-Gorman, however, has countered that the district already has the power to make necessary adjustments to its budget by declaring a state of financial emergency through Florida statutes, and that the furlough mechanism is simply a Trojan horse, inserted to allow the district to walk away from its responsibilities in the future.
"As I have been involved in multiple negotiations before this recently failed effort, I can attest to the intent of that language," Hummel-Gorman wrote in a press release on Friday. "As it was included back at a time of mutual trust between the board and the employees, it was included to say ... 'hey, if we have some type of issue or financial emergency at some point, let's both agree to come back to the table and find a resolution together.' Regrettably, this language opened the door for the district to walk away from its signed and legally binding word of the last contract and impose its resolutions to issues at will."
Hummel-Gorman added, "We cannot agree to the inclusion of the language in our contract. As was proven by the blatant disregard of the last binding contract ... as long as this language is included, nothing that is agreed upon would be required to be honored by this board."
Norton was traveling Friday and couldn't be reached for comment, but District 2 board member and Chairman Emeritus Andy Griffiths sent an email to The Citizen in which he summarized his position on the issue.
"The reason the board wants to keep permissive language in the contract is that it allows us to have impact bargaining if revenues come in drastically below budget instead of declaring a fiscal emergency," Griffiths wrote. "The option of declaring a fiscal emergency has only been used once that I know of statewide, and you invite state intervention when you spend down your fund balance to a meaningless cushion. This language in the contract is 40 years old. We used it for the first time in 2011 and 2012. In 2011 the Legislature passed a law that prohibited us from continuing to raid our fund balance to give raises. So in response to the greatest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, we imposed furlough days after the union walked out of the impact bargaining."
On this issue, however, Hummel-Gorman is adamant.
"Since May, we've been saying that the budget reduction language needed to come out," the union president said. "And Mr. Norton acknowledged that the budget reduction language can't be imposed. Although they offered to remove that language at the last bargaining session, it was simply a tactic to put the same language under the Management Rights section of our contract, essentially allowing the school board to do the same thing, and we couldn't accept that."
The most recent offer turned down by the union would have, according to Griffiths, given a 2.49 percent raise, plus an extra day of training at the rate of $290, plus a majority of teachers in Title One schools would receive an extra $450. Currently, Title One teachers in Monroe County receive just $50.
"It's all moot after yesterday's session as now an impasse has been declared," Griffiths wrote. "In order to get our teachers the governor's raise, we recommended bringing the impasse directly to the board since that's where the decision is ultimately made, but here again the union said no, and that will delay the process and put it at risk of having the money being taken back by the governor."