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Teachers declare an impasse in pay talks

A mediator is scheduled to meet with union and school district officials in April.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003


INVERNESS -- Year after year, the Citrus County Education Association seeks pay raises for teachers. And year after year, the administration offers a raise package that doesn't meet the union's initial dreams.

Proposals drift from one side of the bargaining table to the other until, to no one's surprise, the administrative team's chief negotiator, Ed Murphy, finally says his team has offered all the money it intends to offer.

Then, either through implication or directly, he challenges teachers to find more money if they want better raises.

Some years, the union has taken on the challenge, quizzing district financial experts on various budget items.

This year, when Murphy implied it was time for the union to find the money, union officials didn't blink.

They already had found it.

A study of the district's past five budget years by the union's state organization showed Citrus had socked away millions of dollars that would not be spent this year.

Teachers brought the findings to the table and asked for a larger piece of the district's financial pie.

Administrators dismissed the report, saying the monies in question were earmarked for specific programs and could not go toward raises. The teams debated, and district finance director Sam Hurst finally conceded there was more money available in the budget, but just not as much as teachers claimed.

None of that money was put on the table. So now, more than seven months into the school year and still no closer to settling a contract for the year, the teachers have declared an impasse. A mediator is scheduled to meet with both teams in April.

Last week, teachers from the union negotiating team met with the Citrus Times editorial board to voice frustration and seek a forum to promote a broader public understanding of why the talks have stalled. Several days later, superintendent David Hickey and School Board Chairwoman Sandra "Sam" Himmel also spoke with the Times about the issue.

Hickey said his people are his priority. The teachers say their study shows that is not true.

"The four-year record shows that money has been budgeted for things, not people," argued teacher Rich Guthridge. "Are they being forthright and honest with us? I can say that they are not."

The district's fund balance -- the amount left at the end of the year -- has grown in recent years. Yet union officials argue that they have been pushed to support pay raises that have not kept pace.

Last year, teachers accepted small raises. This year they had hoped for more, and the last offer on the table is more than last year's package. But the union says it is still not enough.

"They (the administrators) don't value education," Guthridge said. "They P.C. you to death, but people isn't where they're going to put the money. Things are where they put the money."

The administration has proposed a $1.7-million pay package. It wants to increase the starting salary for teachers by $1,000, provide teachers some help meeting increasing health insurance premiums, and begin fixing a salary inequity known as the five-year experience cap.

Murphy told teachers all those monetary items, and raises, would have to come from the same dollar pool. The union balked.

The five-year cap was established in the mid 1990s. The union and the administration agreed that future teachers hired into the school system would not get credit, for salary purposes, for more than five years experience.

The law changed and, in January, the state mandated that new teachers hired from now on must be paid for their full experience. The law doesn't explain how districts should handle teachers already caught by the cap.

Teachers don't want to be responsible for having to fix it. They said the administration should pay for the remedy above and beyond what it provides teachers for raises and other financial perks.

Bringing all Citrus teacher salaries up to a level that recognizes all experience would cost about $1-million. During this round of negotiations, administrators had sought to "give back" just three years of experience this year, which would cost about $350,000.

Since the union had found more than $2-million in what it considers "padding" in just 18 budget categories, teachers figured they were justified to ask the administration to pay at least some of that $350,000.

"We maintain there is enough money to fund (partial elimination of) the cap," argued Pat Allen, chief union negotiator.

The union's study examined various spending categories over time. In some areas, district officials traditionally spent far less than what had been budgeted. Yet in the next year's budget, those areas received the full allocation again.

"You can show there is a trend that they don't spend the money in these categories and then they go back and budget it again," Guthridge said.

"It's called padding," said teacher Deborah Platt.

Guthridge was even more blunt. "They're hiding money," he said.

But the administration's team had said that much of the money the union said is available for spending is earmarked for other purposes and can't be used for raises.

"They're just throwing as much as they can against the wall to see how much will stick," Guthridge said.

Money isn't the only source of tension. Union officials have a long list of complaints about how negotiations have been handled.

Administrators traditionally come late to the sessions, sometimes unprepared. They insist that if the sessions don't last all day, teachers on the negotiating team must return to their schools even if it is just for recess and dismissal. They contend that the administration team doesn't tell the School Board all it needs to know about what's happening during negotiations. This year, the teachers weren't told until late in the sessions that the total pot for raises and other monetary items would also have to cover the cost of benefits, a cost that teachers argue is different every time they ask the question.

While the negotiations have been ongoing, the hundreds of teachers who are at the top of the salary scale have seen no pay raise this year. In fact, with the cost of health insurance increasing at the beginning of this school year, they are actually bringing home less money.

Added to those complaints, teachers say they believe they do not get the credit or the money that they deserve. Citrus teacher salaries are 33rd in the state while scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test show progress and achievement many districts have not seen, the union argued.

The union team says the blame rests largely with Murphy.

"He's very fond of trying to bully," Guthridge said. "I am of the opinion that Mr. Murphy is where the hold is."

"And I'm not sure the superintendent is even aware," Allen said.

Actually, Hickey said he wasn't aware of such tactics.

"That's sad," Hickey said.

Murphy said he wouldn't respond to the union's allegations.

But while both Hickey and Himmel said they have not told Murphy to send a message of disrespect to the teachers team, they also said establishing the raise amounts is complex. And with the impasse, there is not much they can say about their tactics in this year's case.

Hickey did say he thought the two sides were coming close together and was surprised when the union called for an impasse.

"I thought the gap was workable," he said. "I felt that last year and this year we were honest with our negotiations and presented the facts honestly to the point with no interest in playing any games."

Last year, other districts were unable to give raises. Hickey said he was proud to give nearly 2 percent on top of the state-mandated $850 bonuses and the $1-million in automatic raises teachers get each year as they move up through the salary scale.

Teachers also need to understand that the district must take care of all 2,000 employees, Hickey said. This year he set aside $2.7-million for everyone. The unions that represent other workers haven't settled.

"I've got 2,000 employees, not just 1,000, and I value all of them," he said.

Hickey also strongly supported keeping a multimillion-dollar fund balance in case of emergency. Plus, he argued, Citrus teachers really aren't as bad off as some might think.

Himmel noted that, because the Citrus union has pushed to keep the top salary at 16 years rather than spreading out the steps of the scale more, Citrus teachers earn more over the length of their careers, even if they top out quickly. Plus, those not at the top of the scale earn an automatic step increase each year.

Allen said she believes the administration is hoping that teachers get fed up with the delays in negotiations but she does not expect that to happen this year.

"They say it's about time that we called their bluff and we have," Allen said. "We've found the money. People are important. Let's put your money where your mouth is."

-- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

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