It's official: The furlough days imposed upon Monroe County School District teachers, and blue collar workers for the 2012-13 school year, will stand.
At a contentious impasse hearing between the School Board and the United Teachers of Monroe, the union representing the employees, the board voted unanimously to uphold the opinion of the special master, who three times already has sided with the board's position to impose the furloughs, due to the district's precarious fiscal position.
Dozens of teachers, many wearing school shirts, packed into the media center of Marathon Middle High School Monday evening to verbally duke it out with members of the School Board, Superintendent Mark Porter, and the lawyer representing the district, Bob Norton.
Taking the podium on behalf of the teachers, union President Holly Hummell-Gorman, told the board that both sides of the dispute had "the power to make things miserable, or joyous" for the students, and their teachers, who are lately feeling "tortured, humiliated, and dehumanized," by the furloughs, as well as the increased cost of health insurance imposed upon the rank-and-file.
"In districts other than Monroe, they have found other ways to balance their budgets without harming their employees," she said to cheers from the 60 or so teachers in attendance. "Stocks are up, housing is up, and unemployment is coming down. The cost is $166,000 per furlough day. The district can afford to rescind two of them. Or grant early release time at the end of the year."
Noting that the state is increasing the district's budget by millions next year, Hummell-Gorman suggested that the district is developing a reputation for mistreating its employees that will make it harder to attract and retain top-flight teaching talent.
Norton then took the podium to deliver a defensive missive on the financial situation the board finds itself in.
"This board has made some very, very difficult decisions, but . . . it's your job to make decisions that work," Norton said, addressing the board, over boos and catcalls from the crowd. "A furlough day is a unpleasant but rational way to deal with an economic crisis, rather than terminating employees. Every single expert that has looked at our finances . . . has ruled with the board."
The meeting was headed up by board co-chair Ron Martin in the absence of School Board Chairman Andy Griffiths, who is currently in Tallahassee for Florida Keys Day, at the capitol. Griffiths participated in the meeting by teleconference, however.
During the citizen input section, teacher after teacher took to the lectern to remind the board of the personal and professional sacrifices they had made year after year, only to find that yet more sacrifices were being demanded of them. Many broke down and had to compose themselves.
"I find it difficult to encourage someone to more to the Florida Keys" to teach, said Poinciana Elementary School teacher Rene Ullom. "I deserve a good retirement income. The loss of my furlough days will affect me the rest of my life. Give us our furlough days back."
Another teacher, Debbie Masters, of Sugarloaf School, wiped away tears as she mentioned that her husband was about to be made unemployed at the end of the month, leaving her wondering how they'll be able to make ends meet.
"I'm so happy we don't have children, and pray for those who do, as I don't know how they're making it," Masters said, continuing on about the "dangerous trend [she sees] of the eroding salaries of teachers in the county." Trying to hold back tears, she was consoled by a co-worker, after finishing her statement.
Brandy Fausett, of Horace O'Bryant Middle School, also sobbed as she told the room how she can no longer afford to pay for sports and dance activities for her daughter, who was recently diagnosed with autism.
"Have I done something wrong?" she asked. "We create A-plus schools. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should."
And Shannon Hansen, of Key Largo School, raised the specter of a dwindling supply of teachers in the future.
"Well done for recruitment," she said. "Good luck retaining their employees."
Following public input, it was the turn of board members to weigh in on the issue.
"This is a very unhappy circumstance to be in," said District 3 member Ed Davidson, to whoops from the teachers. "This was a pay cut. It shouldn't have been called a furlough."
Still, Davidson cautioned, the money just isn't there to cut them a break.
"[Former superintendents] Randy [Acevedo] and [Jesus] Jara spent your paychecks," he said. "The average public agencies in Florida have 90 to 100 days of rescue funds. We have about 20 days."
Davidson told the teachers that his position was that one-third of any new monies allotted the district should go towards restoring teacher contracts that had been whittled down over the years.
"It isn't fair . . . It isn't ethical," Davidson reiterated, promising not to vote for cuts in the future, and blaming the current measures on the fiscal crisis.
"We have enough good math teachers to help," someone in the crowd called out, to applause.
District 1 board member Robin Smith-Martin said simply "This is a bad deal, and we've dishonored our employees, and we have to do better."
District 4 member John Dick was even more succinct.
"The numbers are not there," he murmured.
Griffiths began "it's been very difficult and challenging to listen . . ." before being cut off by boos from the teachers, making the rest of his statement difficult to hear.
Ron Martin began by reminding the teachers he had come to the Keys as one of their own, in the early 1970s.
"If I could write every one of you a check tonight, I would," he said.
"You can't live off respect," a heckler called out, interrupting him.
As Martin prepared to call the roll, many of the teachers began to file out of the room, chanting "shame, shame, shame."
Many other stuck around to watch the 5 to 0 vote.
"It's incredible that the board would not even consider giving the teachers the last day or school off, or leaving early for the rest of the year, which wouldn't cost them anything," Hummell-Gorman said, following the meeting.