Florida Keys News
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
School district, union set for impasse hearing

An impasse hearing to attempt to break the negotiation stalemate between the Monroe County School District and the United Teachers of Monroe (UTM) union will take place at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the A.J. Henriquez Administration Building, at 241 Trumbo Road.

Negotiations between the two sides broke down the third week of January, after months of collaborative bargaining sessions yielded no hope of agreement on one key issue -- the inclusion of language in the proposed one-year contract that would allow the district to nullify the agreement and impose furlough days, as was done two years ago.

Those seven furlough days, imposed during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, resulted in district employees not being paid for six calendar holidays, and being forced to stay home for one work day without pay. The furloughs have since been rescinded by the school board, but the UTM is wary of any contract that could be nullified by the district's decree.

The union contends that the language in any new contract must be agreed upon by both parties. The district, now represented by Miami labor law attorney Robert Norton, agreed to dispense with the articles that made the furloughs possible, but insisted on substituting a management rights clause that the union claims will have the same effect.

The district maintains that it needs the flexibility to make tough choices in the event of a fresh financial crisis or other budgetary emergency.

"That was a major sticking point and there's certainly a paper trail that reflects that," Norton said Monday. "But we agreed to delete that language from the agreement. We supplanted the waiver with a very detailed management rights clause. I don't think the union completely understands the law. The right to do furloughs is inherent. You could take every [furlough enabling] article out of that contract, and still furlough people."

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, was holding some $1.2 million in state teacher salary increase money "hostage" over the issue.

Previously, the school board's chief negotiator at the bargaining sessions had been Superintendent Mark Porter. In December, however, Porter threw up his hands over his inability to break the stalemate.

School board members, such as District 3's John Dick, have asserted that the language must be maintained in the event of a financial emergency, but UTM President Holly Hummel-Gorman 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. She said the furlough-enabling language is simply a Trojan horse, inserted to allow the district to walk away from its responsibilities in the future.

Hummel-Gorman didn't return a call requesting comment by presstime on Monday, but in January she wrote a press release that read, in part, "As I have been involved in multiple negotiations before this recently failed effort, I can attest to the intent of that language. 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."

"We cannot agree to the inclusion of the language in our contract," wrote Hummel-Gorman. "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."

District 2 board member Andy Griffiths said the board wants to keep permissive language in the contract because it allows board members to have impact bargaining if revenues come in drastically below budget instead of declaring a fiscal emergency.

"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," said Griffiths.

Norton agreed that declaring a state of financial emergency was no way to resolve a budget crisis.

"That is one of the most convoluted and complicated ways of going about resolving a financial issue," he said. "We did it for the city of Miami, where $50 million was in question, and any employer that goes that route is taking a big chance."

Norton also questioned the motives of Hummel-Gorman and the rest of the union brass.

"I think they've taken an incredibly greedy perspective with regards to the state money that's available for raises," Norton said, referring to the $1.2 million pot of what has been called the "governor's money."

"We wanted to give 80 percent to the teachers, and share the rest with the rest of the district staff, like a lot of other school boards have done. We also wanted to give more money to Title One school teachers, but they didn't want to do that."

The most recent offer rejected by the union would have given teachers a 2.49 percent raise, plus an extra professional development day at the end of the school year at the rate of $290, plus a majority of teachers in Title One schools would receive an extra $250.

Currently, Title One teachers in Monroe County receive just $50.

Wednesday's hearing is open to the public. The special magistrate in charge of the hearing is M. Scott Milinski.

Following the hearing, Milinski will have 15 days to give both parties his recommended decision.

The district and union will then have 20 calendar days to discuss the recommendation and decide whether to accept it.


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