A collaborative bargaining session between the United Teachers of Monroe (UTM) union and the School District will take place at 2 p.m. today at Marathon High School.
The session had been thrown into doubt due to the looming federal government shutdown, which will keep a mediator, who is on the federal payroll, at home. Instead, the two sides will have to try to hash out their differences unassisted.
So far, the district and UTM have met more than 20 times in the hopes of agreeing upon a one-year contract for both teachers and other school-related personnel who are union members.
Two weeks ago, the district announced that it was going to neutralize one bone of contention with the union by "buying back" seven so-called "furlough" days that employees have endured for the past two years -- effectively taking them off the bargaining table.
At the time, certain board members privately expressed a growing feeling of impatience with the pace of the union talks, but according to UTM President Holly Hummell-Gorman, the local negotiations are actually reflective of what's happening in the state as a whole.
"The St. John's County School District, which includes the city of St. Augustine, just settled on giving its employees a 4.7 percent salary increase after a bargaining session that lasted until 1 o'clock in the morning," said Hummell-Gorman, whose union represents about 400 workers. "That was after four months of negotiations. Collier County, which includes Naples, just gave its teachers 7.2 percent. Of the 67 school employee unions in the state, only 21 have actually settled on contracts this year."
As to the furloughs, they may be gone, but they're not forgotten. In fact, the manner in which they were initially imposed upon district employees is an issue at the heart of the ongoing talks.
"Our position is that the two years of furlough days were done to us because they say they had to," Hummell-Gorman said. "Their policy calls for a 5 percent fund balance. But at the end of the 2011-12 school year, the district had in excess of a 5 percent fund balance, yet they still imposed seven furlough days on us for the 2012-13 school year. It was excessive."
According to Hummell-Gorman, the district was able to impose the furloughs through Article 29 of the teachers' contract, and Article 13 of the School Related Personnel contract. However, the union chief contended that the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission has ruled those articles to constitute a waiver, and as such, should expire, unless the district and UTM decide otherwise.
"The article that allowed the district to impose seven furlough days for two years is a non-mandatory subject of bargaining, and therefore is expired, unless both parties agree to retain it," Hummell-Gorman said.
Should this be the case, how then would the district impose necessary cost-savings on its employees in the future, in the context of another budget crisis?
"They could declare a financial urgency to do things like furloughs," Hummell-Gorman said. "Of course, they'd have to prove that they're really in financial trouble. This year, for example, they're not reducing their budget."
Another issue between the district and UTM is that of seventh periods at the high schools. At present, both Coral Shores High in Tavernier and Marathon Middle High have found ways to partially fund the extra work, but with the teachers agreeing to the measure on a volunteer basis, this arrangement is considered "unsustainable" by both sides.
"Both sides want that," Hummell-Gorman said. "We just haven't been able to agree to all the details just yet."
The union is also contesting teacher evaluation methods, and, of course, additional compensation.
"The Teacher Salary Increase money, or what people have been referring to as 'the governor's money,' was intended for teachers, principals and assistant principals," Hummell-Gorman said. "We're discussing how it should be divvied up. The board wants an across the board increase to all employees. Our proposal gives everybody a raise based on the degree of suffering they've had to deal with as a result of the district's finances. Some employees are in the highest-earning five years of their careers, and that's what their retirement is based on. We're trying to recapture some of the losses people have suffered."
While Hummell-Gorman isn't predicting a breakthrough at today's talks, she's pleased to be negotiating with Superintendent of Schools Mark Porter, as opposed to his predecessor.
"Mr. Porter's leadership is much better," she said. "It's been a complete 180 from dealing with [former School Board labor attorney] Bob Norton, who was very degrading to us. Mr. Porter has been very helpful, especially in helping to dig up information regarding the district's finances. I'd like to say we'll get it done on Tuesday, but I don't have a lot of credence in that."
Porter, who calls himself "more or less the lead negotiator," recently put the impasse into context.
"Often the perception out there is that every problem we face is somehow unique to Monroe County," Porter said. "This is a situation where there is obviously a statewide issue, trying to make collaborative bargaining agreements under what are still tight financial conditions. Yes, we have invested a considerable amount of time to the effort, but I would be the first to say this is a worthy effort. We are a very human-capital oriented business. Working with and trying to develop better relationships with our employees is worth it."
Porter pointed out that of the 20 or so sessions that have taken place so far, most have been during the school year, and thus were not lengthy meetings. Those that did take place were fruitful, he said.
"We have reached tentative agreements on a number of issues," he said. "At this point, it's really a question of what's left. We're down to the end, to the financial. There are generally two areas of discussion. One is the total. How much is available for compensation, and certainly there's some disagreement between the parties on this regard. Secondly, how is it distributed? Both sides bring certain interests to the table."
For Porter, as well as members of the School Board, the ability to use Articles 29 and 13 in the future is of huge importance.
"The one really significant issue is the articles," the superintendent said. "It's going to be tough to find middle ground on it, as both sides feel very strongly. It's the tool, and may have been the only tool, the district had to literally avoid financial disaster. It was invoked, and unfortunately, it was absolutely necessary. To lose that tool would be significant."
School Board Chairman Andy Griffiths, while having no direct role in the negotiations, feels strongly about making sure all School Board employees, not just the unionized ones, get their share of the pie.
"Right now, you have the teachers who are part of the collaborative bargaining unit, the non-teachers who are part of the collaborative bargaining unit, and the other employees who are not part of the collective bargaining unit," Griffiths said. "The people in the first two groups have someone negotiating on their behalf. The last one has no one negotiating on their behalf. Traditionally, we've tried to give the same raise to the third group. The board would like to treat all three groups fairly."
At any rate, any final agreement between the two sides isn't likely to come this week. The new contract then has to be voted on by the bargaining unit, and approved by the School Board.
"I think we probably have a couple of weeks' worth of work to do," Porter said. "But the complications of working on this during the school year mean that it might be more like a month."
"I'm not going to bring my members something they won't ratify," she said. "It would be just spinning our wheels, a waste of time."