By ALICIA LEONARD
A tense start to a meeting that lasted around six hours in all, minus a lunch break and several caucuses, ended with district negotiators and teachers union representatives shaking hands over a tentative agreement for teacher and staff raises.
The morning of Feb. 13, teacher union negotiators, teachers, and Walton County School District (WCSD) staff filled a meeting room at the Wise Center to discuss raises promised by Florida Governor Rick Scott, as well as step raises enacted by past legislation, and the district’s budget.
Jerry Copeland negotiated for the district and Sandra Butler negotiated for the Walton County Education Association (WCEA).
Copeland opened the meeting, telling teachers that they had brought two options with them. The first was to pay all staff from the amount provided by the legislature for the raises and a “plan B” which would fund only education support staff and teachers, with raises for administration coming out of the general fund. “We’re prepared to offer Plan B this morning,” Copeland told the audience.
The WCSD received a little over $1.3 million from the Department of Education (DOE), and charter schools got the first pass at the funds, taking almost $65,000 from the total. Next, the cost of benefits such as FICA and retirement were removed, leaving close to $1.1 million for distribution to teachers and support staff.
This was the first time negotiators for teachers had a chance to look at the numbers provided by the district, as three prior meetings had been canceled. During negotiations, Copeland warned union representatives that if the negotiations failed and the groups went to impasse, the funds could revert to the state.
All together after negotiating, the 608 teachers and 486 Educational Support Personnel (ESP) received an offer of .49 cents extra an hour for teachers, .41 cents for support teaching staff and a step raise added, leaving the district with a $6,087 deficit from the amount the state provided. Teachers would also receive retroactive pay from the previous teaching year as they are still on the prior year’s schedule.
For several years, when property tax revenue was bottoming out, teachers did not receive a step raise, putting many teacher raises on hold and not equaling the years employed. For example, a teacher with the district for seven years might still be on the fourth or fifth-year step. Some teachers verified this, by speaking out in the meeting, and then removing themselves, before Copeland could direct law enforcement officers to remove them.
Copeland warned teachers and audience members that they were not to be a part of the negotiations. “This is a meeting in the public, but not for the public,” Copeland said more than once during the meeting.
Copeland also warned that the Scott raises were only budgeted for two years, and very well might not be included in future legislation past that.
The funds provided by the half-mill tax for the 2013-2014 year only covered close to $5.8 million, with a little over $9.3 million coming from the general fund for the total cost of salaries. Benefits for employees are included in those amounts.
After agreeing on a change in wording requested by the WCEA, Butler and Copeland shook hands on the agreement.
Not everyone was thrilled with the agreement, with many teachers saying they are still behind financially after a salary freeze that has been in place in recent years.
On the other hand, district official have watched an ever-smaller budget come in after property values tanked with the housing collapse.
Teachers and staff that are part of the bargaining unit will get to vote on the agreement Feb. 25. The school board will have the final vote on March 5, if the agreement is ratified earlier by union members.
By ALICIA LEONARD