Florida officials blame unions as thousands of teachers still await raises

Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | January 18, 2023

Teacher union leaders push back: “We vehemently disagree with the idea that we are the problem.”

Superintendent Addison Davis made no excuses for why Hillsborough County school district teachers have yet to get their share of the state’s $800 million allocation for raises.

The district has worked diligently to come up with a plan to pay educators more while staying “within our financial bounds,” Davis told the State Board of Education on Wednesday. His administration meets regularly with union leaders, Davis added, but they haven’t reached an agreement.

They had an impasse hearing recently, and anticipate a recommended order by mid-February.

“The union is the bargaining agent,” Davis told the board, which was meeting in Fernandina Beach. “They are the ones we have to go through to negotiate salary packages.”

Superintendents from seven other school districts shared similar stories with the board, which had summoned them to explain their lateness in “getting dollars into teachers’ pockets,” as chairperson Tom Grady put it. Leaders from districts as large as Broward and as small as Gadsden spoke of how their offers did not pass union muster.

That’s why they did not meet the Oct. 1 deadline to submit an approved salary distribution plan to the state.

“Sounds like blackmail to me,” Grady said after hearing Volusia County Superintendent Carmen Balgobin detail how her district’s teachers union declined to negotiate the state salary increase allocation separately from other contract issues.

He and other board members contended there must be a way for them to put some teeth behind the Oct. 1 deadline, perhaps by setting rules more strictly enforcing the requirements. Grady asked whether districts could give raises to non-union members while the union members wait for bargaining to conclude.

Board member Esther Byrd said it felt like the solution lies in getting the decision about raises out of the hands of the teachers unions. She suggested allowing independent hearing officers to allocate the money if districts can’t get it done, and also called on parents to lean on teachers to accept deals offered by their districts.

“The more we can involve the public in this conversation, the more we can put pressure on people to act and act quickly,” Byrd said, adding that she hoped lawmakers would hear the board’s discussion and do something to curtail unions’ power.

Teacher union leaders took issue with the board’s perspective, which they viewed as part of a larger attack on their organizations.

“What the State Board should be focused on is, what are we doing to get teachers into our schools?” said Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar, noting the rate of vacant teaching positions in the state has gone up nearly 200% over five years. “Instead of maligning teachers and their representatives, they should be working with us to solve this problem.”

Spar argued that veteran teachers see the state’s salary plan as favoring entry level pay, and they’re not willing to settle with earning a small amount more than a first-year educator and below what had been advertised on salary schedules years ago.

Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association President Rob Kriete said that’s the reason why his district is at impasse.

“It’s to get what teachers have already accrued and get paid accordingly,” he said. “We vehemently disagree with the idea that we are the problem.”

Spar pointed out that the vast majority of school districts have successfully completed their negotiations and paid the raises. That fact wasn’t lost on State Board member Joe York, who recommended that the board bring in some of those superintendents and union leaders to hear how they could meet the expectations.

“I would focus on the progress there, and how they have been able to be successful,” York said.

Board member Monesia Brown said districts need to take the issue more seriously, too. She noted the weeks it is taking Flagler County schools to get from negotiated deal to boosting paychecks.

“This is worthy of additional investment in time to make this happen,” Brown said.

St. Johns County Superintendent Tim Forson, who has made similar presentations to the board in the past, said “this is the last place I want to be,” explaining why he couldn’t reach a pay plan in time. He and others might get another chance, though.

The board said it intended to ask leaders of districts that still don’t have a plan to return in a couple more months.

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