By Rachel Christian

Staff Writer

Educator-led walkouts and protest in states such as Arizona, West Virginia and Oklahoma have re-ignited debate over better pay and working conditions for public school teachers in America.

It’s a battle Osceola County educators also continue to fight.

As another school year comes to a close, questions over proposed health insurance increase still loom for more than 6,600 district employees.

Teachers and support staff in Osceola County stand to see as much as a 65 percent monthly premium increase if proposed changes go through.

Teacher protests are tentatively scheduled for May 31 along U.S. Highway 192, but Osceola County Education Association President Apryle Jackson said she doesn’t know how successful it will be.

“The teachers are tired,” Jackson said. “Many of them feel like it won’t make a difference, and they’re just tired of fighting it.”

Only 13 states allow teachers to go on strike, and Florida is not one of them. Unlike their colleagues in Oklahoma or Arizona, educators can lose their retirement plans and have their teaching certificates taken away for three years if they participate in a strike. Florida unions who organize strikes face a minimum $20,000 fine.

Jackson said the purpose of OCEA is to act as an advocate for educators by providing legal guidance and a place at the bargaining table when salary and benefit are negotiated.

But unions, especially those in Florida, face an increasing number of obstacles, including a recent law signed by the governor in March.

HB 7055 – the massive education bill that includes provisions for charter schools, scholarships and tax credits – also includes a measure that can revoke certification for a teachers’ union if less than 50 percent of potential members pay dues.

Jackson said OCEA membership currently ranges between 53 and 59 percent, which worries her.

“Teachers need to have equal opportunities, equal representation,” she said. “A union gives them a fair playing field where everyone has to follow the contract.”

Representatives from OCEA declared impasse with the district’s bargaining team last month over health insurance hikes.

The two groups are headed for a special magistrate trial May 31 where an uninvolved third party will

hear evidence from both parties

before deciding whether health premiums and other proposals should go into effect.

Ultimately though, the district makes the final call.

Many challenges teachers face aren’t easily corrected by the school district, though, which stands to receive even less state funding this upcoming school year. Student disciplinary and work ethic issues, as well as countless hours of unpaid overtime and volunteering, are all part of the job, which is why Jackson said Osceola County teachers

should be better compensated for their work.

“It’s not an easy job,” she said. “You do it because you love the kids, but it’s not an easy job.”

School Board members and district officials face a difficult job as well.

Chief Financial Officer Sarah Graber said the district has tried to keep health insurance costs low for as long as possible. But, she acknowledged, the district can’t plunge itself further into the red, either.

“You can’t just not pay your bills,” said Graber in reference to the district’s current $2.4 million health care trust fund debt.

She added that Osceola County is one of only three districts in Florida that still offers a free basic health insurance single employee plan.

But Graber admitted that even this could “absolutely” go away next year as national health care costs continue to climb.

That makes it likely that insurance premiums will rise again next year as well, she said.

School Board President Ricky Booth said board members would continue to work on its health insurance program and design.

“The Florida education funding program is complex, and isn’t always advantageous to Osceola County,”

he said. “But we’re still going to explore the best options out there for our teachers.”

Booth said it is also important to continue working with leaders at every level to help improve funding for education.

“We’re not the only entity, private or public, with rising health care costs,” he said. “These are tough decisions, but we don’t control the health care market.”