Reporter

Board imposes  teacher  wage  contract changes

Five months of tense wage negotiations for Osceola County teachers finally came to an end last week, when the school board – following recommendations by the district superintendent – imposed seven key components on the 2018-2019 educator contracts.

The seven points addressed:

• Salary increases

• Starting salary for new teachers

• Recruitment incentives

• Design changes to the health benefits plan

• Continued funding and support of the Employee Wellness Center

• Changes to Flexible Spending Accounts

• Contract language modifications

Osceola County teachers took personal time off Aug. 29 to attend a meeting at the district office where the terms of their employment contracts were ultimately decided.  

“This process has been difficult and frustrating for all concerned,” said Superintendent Debra Pace at the beginning of the meeting. “As superintendent, there is nothing I would rather do then bring forth a substantial raise for all of our employees.”

But a booming student population, rising employee health care costs and inadequate funding from the state tied the district’s hands in providing everything asked for by employees and the union representing them, Pace said.  

Where did the money go?

Student growth rose 5.1 percent last year, adding $31 million to the district’s budget.

But, Pace said, those funds must stay with the student, and can’t be used to pay for things like wage increases. Other funds appropriated by the state - such as the more than $3 million the district received as part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act - are restricted and can only be used for certain things.  

That left the district about $482,000 in its general fund reserves. Pace admitted it was more than the state minimum requirement, but for a school district with an overall budget of more than $1 billion this year, Pace wanted to keep “an adequate, not just minimum” amount in reserve.

Pay increases and salary

Each educator rated “highly effective” will receive a $1,200 salary increase and “effective” teachers will receive a $900 pay increase as part of the newly approved contracts. Those grandfathered into the old pay scale will receive a $1,150 increase.

Teachers can expect to see the raises on their paycheck by Sept. 28, according to District Public Information Officer Dana Schafer, who added that all educators – regardless of their rating – will receive a $900 pay increase.

New teachers will also start at $41,000,  $900 more than last year. Pace said it is now the highest starting salary for teachers in Central Florida.

Health insurance changes

Health insurance changes were imposed in bulk by the end of the meeting. These changes were at the heart of educator protests and union negotiations this year. Basic health insurance for employees remains free – at the cost of higher deductibles – but monthly premiums increased for family plans and employee plus spouse plans, along with higher deductibles for both.

But all increases are still lower than the rate hikes initially proposed in March.

Pace said the changes had to happen. Health expenses have  exceeded revenue since 2016, prompting the district to transfer more than $8 million to its health care trust fund over the summer.

Still, the fund continues to bleed $625,000 each month, and is expected to fall below the state required minimum balance by next June, Pace said.

The imposed health care changes were made to help offset the unsustainable trend, according to Pace.

The union’s side

Osceola County Education Association (OCEA) President Apryle Jackson acknowledged that the district tried to meet union wage requests, but added that teachers across the district are still “thoroughly disgusted” by their rate of pay and compensation.

She attributed a high teacher turnover rate to low pay.  

“If we paid our teachers more, more teachers would stay in Osceola County,” Jackson said.

But it isn’t just an Osceola County problem,  the state of Florida is in the bottom five for teacher salary nationwide. The district falls in the middle of all Florida counties.

Jackson relented that the district budget is tight this year and certain changes had to be made.

“We realized this was the best offer that had been brought forward to us in a very long time,” the union president said.

Instead of pushing for higher pay or lower health insurance, Jackson instead pushed on a few specific contract language changes to eliminate “micromanaging” practices imposed on teachers by the district. These included nixing two monthly mandated meetings scheduled during teacher planning periods and additional dates teachers can use Flex Days.  

“If you can’t give them more money, fix their working environment so they have a better work day,” Jackson said.

Talks to continue on minor changes

Board members, including Kelvin Soto, expressed interest in looking at some of these working condition changes at continuing bargaining meetings that occur each month between union representatives and the district. The next one is scheduled for September.

According to School District Attorney Frank Kruppenbacher, the seven points presented by Pace needed to be imposed, but details can be worked out between educators and the district at the September meeting.

“Good relationships work like that – they’re always working constantly, tweaking and improving the process,” Kruppenbacher said. “I think Dr. Pace and Ms. Jackson have heard this board very clearly – get back together to the benefit of everybody and do what you can to get everything in good working order.”

The board ultimately moved to impose the changes.

“We’re in a terrible situation for everybody,” Kruppenbacher said.  “Because we’ve got a legislature that, despite what’s being said, does not value its financial contribution to education. And it keeps coming back in your lap, and the laps of the employees. So, all you can do is keep working together (the union and the district) and keep that relationship healthy.”