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Waiting teachers get mixed message

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By GREG HAMILTON, Citrus Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003

The Citrus County teachers' union representatives on Jan. 30 threw up their collective hands in frustration with the district administration. Contract talks were going nowhere, and the union decided to call an impasse, which sent both teams off to mediation.

The next day, Superintendent David Hickey, School Board members and assorted district leaders sat down for dinner with more than a dozen top teachers at the annual ceremony to name the Teacher of the Year and the Support Person of the Year.

As usual, the evening was filled with high praise for the teachers and support workers, the soldiers on the front lines of education. Hickey delivered his trademark speech about the importance of the district's employees. "People make the difference!" he thundered.

Teachers and support workers, who are represented by the teachers' union, may be left scratching their heads. Which message from the bosses are they to believe? The rhetoric about how valued they are, or the negotiating stance that says we don't care how tough it is to make ends meet, we're going to pay you as little as we possibly can?

That's a position that Citrus County cannot afford to take.

Consider: there is a nationwide teacher shortage, and that doesn't even factor in the demands of the class-size amendment that Florida voters passed last year. Locally, the Citrus School Board recently agreed to spend more than $1-million on two new school sites, which will one day have to be staffed.

Education Commissioner Jim Horne recognizes the situation, noting this week that the state needs to find 160,000 new teachers in the next 10 years and that other states already are luring away Florida's teachers. Given Florida's notoriously low pay, it's not a hard sell.

Horne told the state Senate that drastic changes in compensation, including $100,000 salaries in some cases, will be needed to attract and retain teachers.

Faced with these realities, the local administration has chosen to play hardball with the teachers' union.

One of the big reasons for the impasse is the district's proposed solution to the thorny experience-cap problem. For years, teachers coming here were given credit for only five years of experience, meaning that a 10-year veteran, say, would only get credit for five years. It's as if those other years never happened.

A change in state law, however, requires districts now to recognize all of the experience. It leaves it up to districts, though, to figure out how to compensate those who were caught under the cap for all of those years.

The Citrus administration has set aside a pool of money for teacher raises. Everything, including cap compensation, has to come out of that.

This means less money for raises overall. Plus, it pits teachers against each other, with the new teachers feeling that if the district didn't compensate older teachers, their raises would be better.

The union, understandably, has rejected that proposal.

As in all labor negotiations, then, the issue is money. For years, the two sides have played the negotiation minuet, with the district saying there is no money and the union begging to disagree. As the district's budget is harder to decipher than Egyptian hieroglyphics, the teachers were hard-pressed to refute the district's poor-mouth claims.

This year, however, the union produced its own budget analysis, which, predictably, showed loads of money squirreled away that could be used for raises. The district, of course, discounted the union's findings.

Further, the district is right to be wary of actions in Tallahassee and Washington regarding school funding. With the administrations of both the governor and the president fixated on making their billionaire campaign contributors even richer by bleeding the needy and middle class and by diverting money from education and social services, local governments can expect more unfunded mandates and less assistance.

So, there is reason to believe that the district is merely being financially prudent while it waits for the next slap from above.

These lamentations about tight budgets might ring more true if the district were not in the midst of a land-buying spree. The School Board recently agreed to spend (some might say overspend) $20,000 an acre for a 22-acre site in Lecanto for the new Renaissance Center; and $780,000 for 120 acres in Citrus Springs, when only 80 acres were actually needed. This is on the heels of last year's $1.7-million deal for 150 acres around Crystal River High School, a large part of which is swamp and cannot be built upon.

Granted, money for land purchases and personnel are two different funds that cannot be intermingled. And the district leadership will rightly assert they are diligently planning for the future with the land deals.

However, the message to workers is that the district leaders will spare no expense on dirt, bricks and mortar but will pinch pennies when it comes to the humans who will work in those new buildings.

As in any negotiation, there is merit on each side in this impasse. And, as often happens, one side is in a better bargaining position than the other. In this instance, the teachers hold the upper hand. The public and, at least, the state Education Commissioner recognize their increasing value. "We've got to bring back some self-esteem to this profession," Horne said. "Put 'em back on a pedestal."

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd went even further. "It's pretty simple economics that you're going to have to pay the market rate to get who you want," he said.

The teachers, who have worked nearly the entire school year without a new contract, have lived up to their side of the bargain. It's now time for the district to prove to the workers that the lofty praise from the superintendent at the awards ceremony is more than just empty banquet banter.

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