Board votes against teacher pay raise

OKEECHOBEE — At a legislative hearing held on April 9, the Okeechobee County School board voted 3-1 to deny an average pay increase of 2.7 percent that the Okeechobee County Education Association (OCEA) sought from the school district.

Board members Joe Arnold, Amanda Riedel and Jill Holcomb voted to deny the increase, while Malissa Morgan opposed the motion. Board member Dixie Ball abstained from voting due to having a direct relationship with a teacher.

Speaking before the vote, Okeechobee superintendent of schools Ken Kenworthy made the case for why the district couldn’t afford the pay increase.

“Committing to a recurring cost with this new raise, in addition to the one-time bonus this year, is not fiscally responsible,” explained Mr. Kenworthy. “Currently our teachers’ salaries are comparable to nearby as well as like-sized counties.”

After an impasse in their contract negotiations was declared in October, both the OCEA and the school district met with a special magistrate to hear recommendations on solving the issues. But both parties only accepted one of the magistrates recommendations, which was paying all teachers their “Best and Brightest” bonuses.

Graham Picklesimer, a collective bargaining specialist for the Florida Education Association disagreed with Mr. Kenworthy that Okeechobee teachers’ salaries would be comparable heading into the future.

“There’s no denying that we’ve done well in the past,” said Mr. Picklesimer. “But depending on the board’s decision tonight, we could be behind other districts in the area moving forward. Okeechobee can either move forward or be left behind.”

Mr. Picklesimer pointed out that the district is currently sitting on a 9 percent fund balance for the 2017-2018 school year, while most districts only keep 5 percent fund balance as a general rule. He went on to state that the raise would be a very small portion of that fund balance.

The school district’s director of finance, Corey Wheeler, explained to the board why she thought the district’s position was more fiscally responsible.

“Non-recurring funds should not be used for recurring costs,” Mrs. Wheeler said of the raises. “Excess fund balance can only be spent once, which is why we think a one-time bonus is the best solution.”

Shortly before voting, board Chairperson Jill Holcomb made a statement on the issues of raises.

“I cannot, in my position, bring in a permanent and recurring raise,” Mrs. Holcomb said. “It would be irresponsible. I wish I could change that, but I have to look to Mrs. Wheeler for guidance. It’s difficult for me to look at you and tell you that we can’t pay you what you want and deserve.”

The school board also voted 4-1 to deny a union proposal that would’ve required principals to give a reason when letting go an annual contract teacher at the end of a school year.

School board members Holcomb, Morgan, Ball and Riedel all voted in favor of the motion to deny the union’s proposal, with Mr. Arnold being the only dissenting vote.

Elementary teacher Samantha Mrozowski spoke to the board as a witness for the OCEA before the vote on the unions proposal.

“I give feedback to my students on ways to improve,” explained Mrs. Mrozowski, “this helps the students realize their potential, what they’re able to do and what they need to fix. When I think about how annual contract teachers can be let go without feedback or a reason why, it just seems unfair. A good friend of mine was let go last year with no explanation besides ‘we aren’t rehiring you next year.’ She was rated as an effective teacher and was not marked as ‘needs improvement’ on her observations. Not only was she let go, but she wasn’t even given a reason why. That was devastating.”

Mr. Kenworthy stated that any reason given can be challengeable and could end up costing the district more money and argued that the language the union proposed would undo something the Florida legislature has already decided.

Finally, the school board voted to lower the probationary period for classified employees such as bus drivers and custodians from three years to one year. All board members were in favor of the proposal, with board member Malissa Morgan stating that one year would be plenty of time for a probationary period.

“As a private employer, we have a 90-day probationary period,” said Mrs. Morgan. “I can, without a doubt, determine if an employee will work out in that time frame.”

The district had proposed lowering the probationary period to two years, with the first year being probationary and the second year being an annual contract.

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