Issues that had caused an impasse between the St. Johns County School District and the St. Johns Education Association were finally laid to rest Thursday evening in a meeting before the school board.
Dozens of teachers crowded into the district building’s auditorium to participate in the multihour debate regarding teacher compensation and annual contract disagreements. Before the meeting began, a handful of teachers and union members stood on the sidewalks outside the building and picketed to raise morale.
“It’s time to do what we tell our students to do, which is to stand up for themselves, to find their voice,” teacher Kate Dowdie said.
But despite several emotional testimonies given by teachers during the meeting, the board’s final verdict was one catering to the district’s financial needs.
“I can tell you the board has agonized over this decision,” board member Kelly Barrera assured an audience of teachers.
Contention between the district and union began last August during annual contract negotiations. In December, the union declared an impasse. Several months later, a special magistrate oversaw a daylong hearing with district and SJEA representatives and recommended solutions for settling disagreements.
The special magistrate ruled in favor of the union on three of four impasse issues concerning associate teacher salary, advance degree supplements and annual contract language. The fourth issue, which revolved around pay-for-performance salary increases, favored the district.
In a letter addressed to board members last week, Superintendent Joe Joyner recommended the board reject the special magistrate’s advice on issues favoring the union.
Joyner said the union’s proposal to increase associate teacher pay from $26,000 to $31,000 put financial strain on the district.
The associate teacher position was implemented in 2010 to alleviate strain on lead teachers in crowded classrooms. The district has saved over $1 million in the past few years with the assistance of associate teachers.
St. Johns County is only one of two counties in Florida using the position.
In his letter, Joyner also rejected recommendations to grant the same advanced degree supplement to annual contract teachers as professional contract teachers. Teachers hired before July 1, 2011, receive $2,650 for a master’s degree, $3,650 for a specialist and $4,650 for a doctorate degree, while teachers hired after that date receive an annual supplement of $2,000.
During the meeting, the superintendent was apologetic, but he remained firm in his recommendation to act according to budget limitations.
“If we had the extra money, I would love to divide it between all of the teachers,” Joyner said. “But I’ll tell you, from the last 10 years ... Florida’s funding is 50th in the nation.”
Joyner concluded his argument with his thoughts on adding annual contract protection for teachers hired after July 1, 2011. He disagreed with the union’s proposal to grant teachers an automatic fourth year upon three consecutive years of effective or highly effective performance evaluations, so long as teachers are certified and lack disciplinary marks against them from the current school year.
“I don’t believe it’s legal,” he said.
This year, 71 teachers were not reappointed. Joyner said only 31 of those teachers were not reappointed based on performance.
But several teachers at the meeting said they hadnot been reappointed for no reason other than they weren’t considered a “good fit.” Their performance evaluations, they said, displayed exemplary marks.
“Hundreds of students will not be taught by a caring and considerate teacher now,” said Linda Tassopoulas, a teacher not reappointed despite her highly effective rating.
According to Sally Cunningham, the chief negotiator for SJEA, 36 out of 67 school districts have some sort of annual contract language protection.
“When employees are valued, they work harder,” Cunningham said.
But the board’s response to hours of presentations remained short and sweet. Board members voted 5-0 to reject the union’s requests on all four impasse issues. Board members said they wished the district could afford more, but it couldn’t.
Board member Tommy Allen went as far as saying he was hurt by the union’s accusations that the board was indifferent to teachers’ plights.
“It’s cast us as though we don’t care, that we aren’t concerned,” Allen said. “It’s very insulting to me and very hurtful. I do care about the money teachers make.”
Several of the board members promised compensation issues will be revisited in the future once the budget allows. As far as contract language goes, they all agreed the legality was up for debate.
“We really have to focus on doing the right thing,” Barrera said. “And I don’t feel that legally, that’s the right thing.”
As the meeting adjourned, many teachers wiped away tears and shared heated whispers. Tassopoulas left immediately with her daughter in tow. Others waited to speak with district staff and union members.
Cunningham maintained a gentle attitude, but she said she wasn’t surprised with the board’s ruling.
“We were realistic, we expected this,” Cunningham said.
The new fiscal school year starts today, and the union and district will head back to the bargaining table immediately.
“It won’t be tomorrow,” Cunningham said. “But we’ll be back at it again soon.”