School Board overturns automatic pay increases

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By Steve Waters, Sports Editor

The School Board of Levy County unanimously voted on Tuesday to change the language of the school district’s contract with the Levy County Education Association, altering it so that automatic salary step increases for teachers and employees will now be negotiated annually.
Both sides argued their cases before the board during an impasse hearing at the School Board’s offices in Bronson. The decision alters an agreement that has been in place for 30 years in the school district.
Following the hearing, Superintendent Bob Hastings said the decision was difficult, but necessary in a tough economic climate.
“This was just a prudent way of addressing our economic times,” Hastings said. “I don’t believe there’s a superintendent in the state that doesn’t want to give raises and be in a position to honor steps or bonuses, or whatever they can. I love the teachers and the ESPs and think highly of the job they do. It hurts me that I can’t give them more money, but the economic times dictate what I can do.”
Before, the salary steps were automatically given to teachers and other district employees based on their place in the school district’s salary schedule. Historically, 1 percent of the total salary budget, or about $380,000, was given automatically every fiscal year. The teachers’ union was negotiating for about $270,000 that went out to its members. Teachers and employees at the top of the pay scale were not given step increases in pay.
With Tuesday’s decision, this money will now have to be negotiated annually between the school board and the union. The school board stated that the decision does not deny the step increases for teachers, but makes so they can be distributed when it is financially feasible.
“It’s a dark day for Levy County,” LCEA President Cindy Roach said. “It’s a dark day for students, and it’s a dark day for teachers. … We work hard for our students, but we also want to be respected.”
During the hearing, Roach stated that the district did not provide ample evidence that it was in a financial emergency. She said that from 2009-2010, the district’s general fund increased from $2.2 million to $3.6 million, and the additional quarter millage rate, approved earlier this month, would bring in an additional $767,000 for 2010-2011.
With the expected addition of funds from the federal Race to the Top program, School Improvement Grants and a federal jobs bill, the district could afford to keep the automatic steps.
Director of Finance Bob Clemons, representing the school district, said that starting in the 2011-2012 fiscal year, the district stands to lose about $5 million once funds from the stimulus package and state stabilization programs run out. He said $2.7 million in salaries were paid for by those programs instead of the general fund, which he said explains the increase in the general fund. Clemons’ presentation did not account for any future funds from Race to the Top or other programs.
In its presentation, the district added that declining property values, funds from the state and full-time student enrollment made it difficult to pay automatic increases in salary for employees.
Roach said the decision compounds on an already difficult situation for teachers. She referred to the decision as a “morale buster” that could hurt the county in the long term.
Both parties are operating under an agreement that was put in effect in 2008 and set to expire in 2011. Negotiations over the automatic step issue began July, 15, 2009, and an impasse was declared on March 26, 2010. A hearing with a special magistrate was held on May 5.
During the 6 1/2-hour meeting on May 5, the special magistrate, Dr. James Brady, said he shared the union’s concerns over staff morale, and that “to remove the assurance of such a 30-year-old contractual benefit must be justified by financial urgency."
“We’ve had a fairly good salary schedule that got people to the top fairly quickly,” Roach said. “Now, you may never reach the top in Levy County. In fact, we have teachers that are stuck in the (lower steps) that don’t get anything. Now, they could potentially be there their whole careers.
“To ensure a quality workforce, you need to have good working conditions and a paycheck that they can live on,” she added. “I’m not sure of that’s going to happen here anymore.”
Hastings took issue with the term “morale buster.”
“I really regret that they take that type of public stance,” he said. “I think that when you put out that type of rhetoric it leads to dissatisfaction, and an unclear understanding of where we actually are.”
But Hastings added that he did not view Tuesday’s decision by the board as a victory.
“In cases like this, there are no winners. Nobody wins. It’s a matter of just trying to be prudently fiscal with the state’s money and the taxpayers’ money, and keeping people employed and keeping children employed. That’s all we’re trying to do.”
Roach said the decision will have consequences in the classroom.
“Unfortunately, if teachers are stressed over paying bills and putting food on the table, you can’t help but have that stress come into the classroom,” Roach said. “It’ll be devastating.”
The changes will be placed in the next version of the labor agreement, which is still being developed.