Flabbergasted was the look I tried to conceal when school board Chief Negotiator Vicki Reynolds came back into the conference room where negotiations were taking place. She came back with an offer of more money than DTU had asked for just a few minutes before – and, for the record, the union only asked for what they had been promised in the contract. That’s the middle of the story.
The beginning of the story was on August 9, 2010, when the school board voted 4-3 to break the contract it had with Duval Teachers United and declare a financial emergency. They pointed to a projected $5 million shortfall in the budget, despite the fact that in the last year they had been spending like drunken sailors: $1 million on new cars; an increased travel budget approaching a half million dollars; multi -million dollar renovations at Ed White high school and Lee high school(which, you might remember , was just rebuilt a few years ago, after a fire). The list goes on and on. Also, keep in mind that President Obama was scheduled to sign the Federal Jobs Bill on August 11, 2010.
Since then, it wasn’t just the teachers who were fired up and shocked by what the school board had done, but a large segment of the public, as well. They knew that local educators weren’t the most well- paid bunch, but, even in these troubling financial times figured they should get at least what they had been promised. The school board had taken a public relations hit that may have even led to at least one upset in the local school board races. People are slowly beginning to grasp that maybe having politicians using the school board as a stepping-stone on the way up (or the way down) as well as people who only have a tenuous relationship to education might not be the wisest move – especially seeing the dire straits our shrinking school system has been facing.
When the board declared financial urgency, it set in motion a timetable that would send the contract to mediation if the parties didn’t either agree on a new financial model or, at least, agree to extend the deadline. That led to one negotiating session preceded by a rally which saw several hundred teachers and their supporters in attendance. At that initial meeting, the school board offered to eliminate steps for the county’s paraprofessionals, universally recognized as the most underpaid, overworked and disrespected employees the school system has. The teachers, however, could receive their step – though there would be no money for those teachers at the top of the pay ladder. The district also proposed setting up a committee to look at future pay scales. Something which you won’t read in the Florida Times- Union is that DTU was very amiable to the suggestion – so much so that on the info sheet sent to DTU members, that part was in bolder and bigger letters than the rest. Perhaps this is rightfully so because after that first meeting, that was the only thing upon which the two parties had agreed.
When the union contract negotiating team came back together, the first thing they agreed upon was that the paraprofessionals would not be left out in the cold. While it wasn’t said out loud, there seemed to be a feeling in the room that they would be taken care of first. It was decided by all that they would counter with each group, teachers and paraprofessionals, asking for $250 for the paras at the top and $400 for teachers at the top (both in lieu of steps). The team was also still very amiable to forming a committee to talk about future pay scales. They were going to let the school board know they would be willing to extend the deadline so the negotiator could take the proposal back to the board. The DTU did not ask for raises (something teachers have not received since the ‘07-‘08 school year); instead, they basically just asked for what they were told they would receive.
Negotiations are like a dance; at first, one side leads and then, the other. There are also a lot of subtle niceties that, if you read between the lines, really don’t always come off as all that nice.
Vicki Reynolds asked to confer with her team. Once they left, the DTU team looked at each other and someone suggested maybe they were going to try and finish this tonight, which is kind of amazing if you think about it: the school board had gone from eliminating everything to offering teachers their steps, to now considering both teachers and paras receive their steps, and then kicking in some money for those members on the top ends of their prospective pay scales.
The school board negotiating team came back in. First, they agreed to the paraprofessionals’ step increases and then the $250 for the paras at the top end of the pay scale. Then, something amazing happened – something I imagine is very rare in the negotiating world: the negotiating team offered teachers not only their steps, but also $500 for those members at the top end of the pay scale. Yes, folks – they were offering teachers $100 more than what the DTU was asking.
Now, it’s true that I am very new to the process, and what I don’t know could fill volumes. I may have missed something in the language that, on occasions, seems purposefully wordy and confusing – but, regardless, there they were; offering more than what was asked. It seemed all they wanted in return was for the DTU to sign off right then and there and agree to look at reworking future pay scales. Both were things the union was more than willing to do.
Flabbergasted was the look I tried to conceal when school board Chief Negotiator Vicki Reynolds came back into the conference room and offered more money than the union had asked for – and now they were willing to pay more than they would have had the board not called a financial urgency.
The negotiating team asked for a few minutes to discuss the offer, and, as the board negotiating team left, the first thing we wondered was what we were missing. Why had the district first shown so little respect to their staff just so, in the end, they could pay more money that they would have, originally? The best we could come up with was that they wanted to move on and do so quickly. They realized that the financial urgency was nothing but a failed ploy which they thought they could use to get the public outraged against teachers in the same way so many seem to be against firemen, policemen and other civic employees. We imagined they realized it had failed and that they felt they needed to get it out of the headlines and off the minds of the citizens of Jacksonville as quickly as possible.
During the team’s talk, several teachers even discussed settling for our original offer. These are tough times, and teachers know that; they also know what public perception can be. Unfortunately, there is a certain segment of the population, which is all too willing to blame teachers for the state of things while giving the school board and superintendent a pass. Even though it was ultimately passed upon, mostly due to the huge increases of out–of-pocket benefit costs that teachers are paying this year, it was literally touching to hear teachers (many of whom already sacrifice and give so much, and many of whom had felt so disrespected when this process began) even discussing it.
When the district team came back into the conference room, the union bargaining team accepted their offer – an offer that was more than what the DTU had asked for. This isn’t even the end of the story; no this is just another chapter showing the capricious matter in which things are run. The end of the story is still far off, and it won’t be a happy one for the districts teachers and its children nor their parents the stakeholders or the city of Jacksonville itself unless we make changes, big changes.