Florida Keys News
Friday, April 25, 2014
Debated contract a no-go
No chance for a union settlement

Contract negotiations between the School District and the union representing its employees are officially at an end - with no settlement reached.

Both sides went into a last-ditch meeting Wednesday afternoon at Marathon High School hoping that a good faith effort on both sides would bring about a negotiated settlement to the year-long contract talks.

They were wrong.

In the end, neither side was prepared to give ground on what has been the major sticking point in the year-long negotiations: the right of the district/board to impose emergency measures such as furlough days in the event of an economic emergency, outside of the existing Florida statutes.

"We were unable to reach an agreement," a noticeably frustrated Superintendent Mark Porter said after the meeting. "We put forth what we thought was a reasonable proposal, but in the end, both sides were still hung up over management rights language. It's disappointing, but part of the process. We're just going to have to wait until we can convene the board for a legislative hearing, at which time, they will impose the terms and conditions of the new contract, which will expire in eight to 10 weeks anyway."

United Teachers of Monroe President Holly Hummel-Gorman sounded equally dismayed in an email she sent to her rank-and-file members, following the meeting.

"UTM attended the meeting with great optimism that the Legislative Impasse Hearing could be avoided," she wrote. "The first article that was addressed was the Management Rights article for both the Teacher and the School Related Personnel contracts. Unfortunately, after 11 months of insisting that UTM would not accept waivers of our statutory and contractual rights, the final Management Rights proposal contained just that. Needless to say, UTM didn't feel that their last best offer was put forward in the interest of resolving the conflict that exists between the parties. The Monroe County School Board refuses to accept that their employees have statutory and contractual rights that they cannot force us to waive."

The development is just the latest in a long-running saga that began in April of 2013, when Hummel-Gorman and her negotiating team sat down with then-chief district negotiator Porter to try to come up with a 2013-14 school year contract through the collaborative bargaining process. Consensus proved difficult to achieve, however, and by November, after dozens of meetings, Porter threw in the towel, saying that a tentative deal with the union, announced with much fanfare, was now dead in the water. At the time Porter also said that he would relinquish his role as lead negotiator.

"We are disappointed that the agreement won't be presented for a vote," Porter told the board at the time. "But will be meeting with Mr. Robert Norton, the labor attorney who has represented the district in the past. Things have changed."

Like Porter before him, however, Miami labor law specialist Norton continued to insist that any agreement contain some kind of waiver or language allowing the district to impose emergency measures, such as furlough days.

For her part, Hummel-Gorman has consistently maintained that Florida statutes already allow the district ample leeway to deal with economic emergencies and that any additional measures would be overkill, and a potential means of eviscerating any provision of the contract down the road.

The school board voted to "buy back" the seven furlough days that the district had imposed on its employees during the previous two schools years, but by mid-January the UTM had declared an impasse to the negotiations with Norton, largely over the furlough language issue.

As the talks collapsed, acrimonious comments piled up on both sides.

In a press release, Hummel-Gorman accused Norton of holding some $1.2 million in state teacher salary increase money "hostage" over the issue, while at the Jan. 14 board meeting, District 4 member John Dick insisted the contested waiver language had been included in all employee contracts for decades. More recently Dick has warned that "the board has the final say" in the contract negotiations, and that the board has "already put out what it wanted" to see in the final outcome.

Nonetheless, the UTM's impasse declaration resulted in both sides making their respective cases before Special Magistrate M. Scott Milinski, March 5 in Key West.

Nearly a month later, on March 31, Milinski finally made his non-binding recommendations, and they provided a psychological boost for the UTM and its members.

In his 25 page report, the Special Magistrate appeared to side with workers on both the furlough-enabling language, and employee compensation.

The district, he stated, does indeed already posses the tools it needs to cope with a new financial emergency, and any continued insistence on maintaining leverage above and beyond that level risked poisoning relations between the district and its employees.

Money-wise, he suggested the teachers receive a $1,900 raise, and other support staff also receiving a salary bump, though the district would be allowed to deduct tax and pension costs from this sum.

Milinski also recommended:

• Additional compensation for the increase work year from 196 days to 197 days; from 198 days to 199 days for new teachers.

• A $200 increase in Title 1 supplemental pay for teachers in designated Title 1 schools.

• That the UTM agree to a 2 percent adjustment for School Related Personnel unit, (which includes food service workers, etc.), and principals/assistants, which will come out of the state allocation funds.

• And that the UTM also agrees to utilization of state allocation funds for one-half of the cost of the 2 percent salary adjustment for "other employees."

The UTM leadership almost immediately voted to accept Milinski's recommendations, with Hummel-Gorman calling them the product of observations by a "fair and impartial observer."

Her members, she said, are becoming increasingly "frustrated about the district's inability to compromise on the issues at impasse."

"If the district ... [votes] to impose its will, that shows where the problems lie," Hummel-Gorman said in an email exchange. "We've tried to reach an agreement with the board, but they are unbending."

Porter however, stuck to his guns, however, and on April 15 stated that the district would refuse to be bound by Milinski's suggestions to end the impasse.

"In our review and assessment of the recommendation, the school board will be taking exception to several recommendations of the special magistrate," Porter said. "That should come as no surprise. We believe he is recommending compensation that is 25 percent higher than what was proposed or even requested by the UTM. I would describe this as a highly unusual outcome."

Now that negotiations have officially ended, Porter said that the next step will come sometime in the next few days, when a date will be announced for a special meeting of the school board. At that time, Porter will propose his terms for a contract settlement, and the board will be charged with accepting, rejecting, or modifying them.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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