Representatives of the School District and its employees' union met all day Wednesday, with Special Magistrate M. Scott Milinski, to try and resolve the differences that have left hundreds of district workers without a contract - and state-funded raises - more than halfway into the 2012-13 school year.
The impasse hearing commenced at 9 a.m. at the A.J. Henriquez Building, with both sides being afforded the opportunity to make their cases to Milinski.
The main point of disagreement between the two sides has been the United Teachers of Monroe union's concern about the ability of the district, through one mechanism or another, to nullify elements of negotiated contracts, as it did during the 2011-12 and '12-13 school years.
During that time, the district imposed seven furlough days upon its employees, as its financial situation deteriorated.
Other issues, such as the share of state raise money to be allotted to non-teaching staff, and Title One school teachers, were also at play, when an impasse in negotiations was declared in late January. By that time, the two sides had met 26 times, with Superintendent Mark Porter acting as chief negotiator for the district, and UTM President Holly Hummel-Gorman representing the employees.
In December, however, Porter conceded failure in sealing a deal with the UTM. Miami-based labor lawyer Robert Norton was brought in to negotiate on behalf of the district, but by Jan. 9 the UTM was accusing the district of holding the $1.25 million in state raise money "hostage" to its insistence on being able to modify future contracts. An impasse was declared, and Milinski was selected by default from a list of seven names served up by the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC.) Each side was allowed to strike three names from that list, leaving Milinski being considered the most impartial by both sides.
"Nothing I say is binding," Milinski reminded the negotiators on Wednesday morning, adding that he was "here to make a recommendation.
"Nobody's going to get everything," he said.
The tension was palpable in the meeting room, as both sides prepared to stake out their positions. On Norton's side of the aisle were Superintendent Porter, Executive Director for Finance and Performance Jim Drake, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Theresa Axford, and Executive Director of Human Resources Ramon Dawkins.
On the UTM side, President Hummel-Gorman was assisted by UTM members Katie Balafz, Patti Tielkemeier, and Labor Specialist Diane Falvo, of the Florida Education Association.
The history between Norton and the UTM is a bitter one, as he successfully represented the district during the furlough years through numerous union appeals of the process that led to employees not being paid for six calendar holidays, and being forced to stay home one other day without pay.
"I'm going to play this game by the law," an impatient-sounding Norton said to the UTM negotiators, at one point during the hearing. "You can tee it up any way you want."
Hummel-Gorman appeared equally unenthused about having to go through the impasse process.
"Let's not end up here again," she said, after Falvo indicated to Milinski that she was instructing the union president on how to approach the process, in the future.
The meeting was wrapping up at press time, leaving neither party time to comment.
Following the hearing, the magistrate has 15 calendar (business) days to give both parties his recommended decision. The two sides will then have 20 calendar days to discuss the recommendation and decide whether or not to accept it.