Okeechobee County school district, teachers’ union at impasse in contract negotiations, bargaining continues today at 4:30 p.m.

OKEECHOBEE  The Okeechobee County Education Association (OCEA), the union that represents instructional employees and classified employees in Okeechobee County, has declared an impasse with the Okeechobee County School District.

According to an OCEA press release, impasse was declared because the Okeechobee County School District did not offer a raise for its teachers. They only offered a guarantee of a bonus given out by the Florida state legislature. They offered to pay the 10 percent of employees not covered by the bonus. This money will not be released until February. These bonuses are temporary salary increases that go away after this year. The district did not offer a raise despite having almost $5 million in reserves, OCEA stated.

Okeechobee County Schools Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services Renee Geeting said the Florida State Legislature is offering an $800 bonus for teachers who had an “effective” rating in their annual evaluations and a $1,200 bonus for teachers who were rated “highly effective.” The state bonus only applies to classroom teachers. Mrs. Geeting said the school district offered to provide the same amount to all instructional personnel, plus an additional $400 for every teacher with an effective or highly effective rating last year. The school district’s cost of the bonuses (minus the state’s contribution) would be $276,695, she said.

She said while the school district has reserve funds, expenses have exceeded revenues for the past few years.

The state requires the district keep 3 percent of the annual budget in reserves; the Okeechobee County School Board’s policy has been to keep 5 percent in reserve, she said. “We do have higher than 5 percent in reserve, but if we continue to expend $2 million more than revenues, there will be a point where reserves will be exhausted,” she explained. She said while bonuses are a one-time expense, raises are a continuing expense.

This year, the district offered bonuses but no step increase, she stated.

Graham Picklesimer is the chief negotiator for OCEA. He is a union representative from the Florida Education Association (FEA). He has been negotiating the contracts for Okeechobee County School Board employees for the past 3 years.

“The district’s proposals equal more work for teachers, less time to do the work, and no money for extra work done,” said Mr. Picklesimer. “Employees are at a breaking point. They are going to have classrooms without teachers and buses without drivers pretty soon.”

OCEA stated the district also refuses to negotiate annual contract language which would help with the current teacher shortage in the district. This shortage has caused paraprofessionals to have to substitute on a regular basis. Compensating these paraprofessionals for classroom teaching has also been a priority for the union.

The district is also proposing a 2-year probation period for classified employees, according to the OCEA press release. Most counties in the state only have a 1-year probation period. The Okeechoee district currently has a 3-year probationary period for classified employees.

Mrs. Geeting said the union wants the classified employees to have tenure after only one year of employment; currently 3 years is required. She said the district offered to reduce the probationary period to 2 years.

Lisa Harwas, an elementary school teacher at Seminole Elementary School is currently the OCEA president. She has been a part of the negotiations since last year. She wasn’t pleased with how the district was bargaining with its employees.

“It’s disappointing that our employees are not being made a priority,” said Ms. Harwas. “How is this good for students?” While both parties continue to bargain, they seem to be miles apart on the issues at hand, she stated. This is especially true when it comes to salary and benefits.

Mrs. Geeting said while the district and the union have made progress on some issues there are two other items still on the table. She said the union requested early release days every Wednesday. “We believed that would negatively impact the parents,” she said.

The union also wanted 50-minute planning periods each day for elementary school teachers and a requirement that administrators could not use planning period times for meetings more than twice a month, Mrs. Geeting said. She said the district agreed to increasing the planning periods to 50 minutes — which would total an increase of 30 hours a year in planning time — but found the limit to twice a month meeting too restrictive for the administrators.

The next bargaining session is Oct. 30, at 4:30 p.m.

Mrs. Geeting said the union declared an impasse, but wanted to continue negotiations. If the two sides cannot reach an agreement, the issues would go to a magistrate. The magistrate would hear both sides, and make recommendations. If either side did not accept the recommendations, the issue would go to legislative hearing before the school board.

The Okeechobee County School District employs 436 teachers. Of those, 244 are on annual contract, 191 on professional services contract and one on continuing contract, according to Mrs. Geeting. In 2011, the state Department of Education moved to the “merit pay” system with annual contracts. Those hired after 2011 are on annual contract. Teachers who were on professional services or continuing contracts at the time of the change had the option of switching to the merit pay system, which gives larger bonuses for those who are rated “highly effective.” Those who chose to stay on professional services or continuing contracts receive the same bonuses as those rated “effective” on the merit pay system.

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