As Gov. Scott calls for billions in cuts, South Florida teachers demand millions more in pay

By William Gjebre,

While public employees battle to maintain collective bargaining rights and benefits in many states, including Florida, teachers unions in the state’s two largest school districts want pay increases this year and next.

Broward and Miami-Dade teachers’ unions are pursuing salary proposals costing more than $148 million even as Gov. Rick Scott called for $3.3 billion in education cuts statewide for next year.

The key funding sources, which pay public school districts approximately $6,800 per pupil, are state funds and collections from local property taxes. The state, however, sets limits on how much money districts can collect in property taxes for general operating expenses, such as salaries.

While union officials say pay hikes are warranted, officials for the two public school districts say they don’t have the money to pay for the proposals because of current and future funding limitations.

“The governor’s budget has a reduction for Broward Schools of $205 million for 2011-12,” said Jane Turner, Budget Director, Broward public schools.  “As such, there are not funds set aside for employee increases.”

The Broward district, however, did absorb a 4.5 percent health insurance increase during 2011 for employee only coverage, costing about $6 million.

The two South Florida public school districts are among the nation’s largest.

Broward, sixth largest with approximately 257,000 students and a budget of $3.3 billion, has more than 36,000 employees, including 15,700 instructional personnel. Miami-Dade, fourth largest with approximately 347,000 students and a budget of $4.3 billion, has a total of more than 45,000 employees, including about 22,500 instructional personnel.

Despite the economic tough times facing the Broward school district this year and next year, Dane Ramson, chief negotiator for the BTU, said the pay hike request “is more than reasonable for past and present” services by teachers.

 “It’s time to show people they are valued,” Ramson said, adding teachers haven’t had a pay increase for two years. “The teachers are maintaining the high academic standards.”

Details of Broward talks

In its latest salary proposal made late February, the Broward Teachers Union (BTU) asked for a step increase effective January 2011 for the 2010-2011 school year, and another step increase effective June 30, 2011 for the 2011-2012 school year. Those on the top step would receive $500 for each year for a total of $1,000.

The approximate cost: $34 million to $36 million.

The BTU proposal for a step increase retroactive to Jan. 1, 2011 amounts to a half-step increase for the year, with the cost around $8 million. Full year funding for this step, which would begin next school year, would cost about $16 million.

The second step being sought for next year would cost approximately $16 million to $18 million. The two-year cost would be around $34 million-$36 million, the union said.

“There is enough money there for” the first step costing around $8 million, Pat Santeramo, BTU president said. “It’s justified,” he said of the step increase for this year. “Teachers did not go into the professions for money. They got into it for the love of teaching and imparting knowledge.”

“It’s hard to swallow no pay increases” for several years, Santeramo added.

Santeramo said the union would act on the one step increase for the current year and would be willing to discuss the second step later, taking into consideration the district’s funding situation at that time.

The BTU, Ramson added, has offered district officials many suggestions on ways to save money that could go toward raises for employees.

Unclear, however, is whether the district had a salary proposal on the table. A district official who asked not to be quoted said the district had an offer on the table: 1 percent of salary in the form of a non-recurring bonus. However, Ramson said the district brought up the issue at the Feb. 17 bargaining session, but withdrew it the following meeting. “They back-pedaled,” she added.

A summary of the minutes, as written by the district, states that “the district said that it was willing to put $4 million” toward bonuses, but does not clearly state that this was put into a proposal. There was no written proposal regarding the bonus on the district’s web page.

Details of Miami-Dade talks

The United Teachers of Dade, representing teachers, office employees and other school-based staff, is asking for a two-step increase retroactive to the first day of the 2010-2011 work year. Employees on the top step would receive a $1,500 hike for each salary movement, a total of $3,000.

The approximate cost: $109 million.

Miami-Dade public schools had made a 1 percent non-recurring bonus offer to the teachers union for 2010-2011 but it was withdrawn when Gov. Scott announced the education funding cut for next year. “We don’t have the money this year,” said Richard Hinds, Associate Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer for Miami-Dade schools.

Hinds said the UTD’s proposal involves continuing costs, and in light of the Gov. Scott’s budget, “it would be irresponsible to entertain recurring costs.” He said the district can’t afford salary increase this year and “next year we will have even less money.”

In negotiations, Miami-Dade agreed to pay for a 7.9 percent insurance cost increase for calendar year 2011, costing about $24 million for all employees, $18 million attributed to UTD unit members.

The Miami-Dade district has a contingency fund of $100 million, representing 3 percent of its operating budget; state law requires 2 percent, Hinds said.

UTD President Karen Aronowitz said the union “understands what a terrible political climate we are in. But when legislators purposely cut funding to education and think it does no harm to children, then they are lying to the public.”

The union, Aronowitz said, is only seeking “what we were supposed to have earned, that were promised to us.”

The district successfully withheld negotiated pay increases for teachers during 2008-2009 when the financial crisis hit the state. UTD unit members received a step increase in December, 2009 for the 2009-2010 school year, costing the district approximately $38 million. The cost of the recurring increase for the full year, 2010-2011, was approximately $68 million.

A UTD official said the union told the district it was flexible on the number of steps and effective date for 2010-2011 salary increases, but talks broke down over the issue because the district did not want recurring costs. Declaring impasse in December 2010, the UTD and the district, later this month, will go before a special magistrate who will make a non-binding recommendation.

“This is trying to catch up so people can pay their bills,” Aronowitz said. “Just like when we signed a mortgage, we know what we intend to pay. Teachers rely on representations made to them as well. Maybe people can understand that.”

Aronowtiz said teachers are deserving of salary increases. “You pay people for their education, for their skill levels, for their position and for what they do: which is to educate our future and make our students competitive.”

That’s why, Aronowtiz said, the union pushed the issue to the impasse process.  “We need to have resolution now” and move on, she added.

Next round of talks

The special magistrate hearing involving the UTD and the Miami-Dade school district will be held at 10 a.m., Tuesday, March 22, 2011, at the Law Center at Florida International University, South Campus.

Meanwhile, negotiators for the BTU and the Broward school district will resume negotiations, the 14th collective bargaining session, on Thursday, March 24, 2011 at the Atlantic Technical Center in Coconut Creek.

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