Manatee High School teacher Don Falls knows how to crunch numbers. With more than three decades experience teaching economics in Manatee County, Falls has seen more than 30 contracts between the teachers union and the district. Some years he gives the numbers a quick glance; in other years he scrutinizes them more closely.
What he saw this year shocked him.
“I'm seeing a 1 percent raise and a 68 percent (health insurance) premium increase,” Falls said. “It will cost me. If this went through, I will be $2,500 poorer than I was last year. That is awfully hard to accept.”
Falls is one of the roughly 900 teachers in the district who would be most affected by the tentative agreement rejected by the teachers’ vote last month.
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Under the agreement, teachers would receive on average a $900 annual raise, but teachers with spouses on the district health insurance plan would pay $228 more in monthly insurance premiums for the most basic level of coverage. Teachers with their family on the plan would pay $265 more.
Teachers with just themselves and their children on the plan would save $90 under the new plan.
Teachers with a bachelor’s degree who are teaching in Manatee County earn $38,285 in their first year.
40 percent of teachers enrolled in the district’s health care plan will be impacted by sharply increasing premiums for coverage of their spouse and children.
On Tuesday, the Manatee Education Association and district declared they were at an impasse shortly after resuming negotiations. The union had requested a cost-of living increase and more funding toward premiums, totaling roughly $3 million.
The school district rejected this and encouraged the union to vote again. District negotiator Bill Vogel said if teachers didn’t ratify the contract by Monday, they will lose additional pay they might have earned since the last contract expired. Vogel said the district would need to use the retroactive pay to cover the teachers’ increased health care costs of $465,000 a month, starting Jan. 1.
The union rejected the idea of having teachers vote on the same contract again, and the meeting ended in an impasse. Now that the two sides have agreed to disagree, the process of ratifying an agreement could stretch into the spring of 2017.
What does an impasse entail?
The two sides must now agree on a special magistrate who will hear each side’s positions and make a non-binding recommendation. If both the union and district agree to the magistrate’s recommendation, the contract dispute would be resolved.
But if either side disagrees with the recommendation, the school board will decide on the contract. If the process goes all the way to the school board, it could take until March to get a resolution.
Marsha J. Murphy, a mediator in Naples who served as an arbitrator between the district and union during previous impasse negotiations, said she is seeing more school districts and unions arrive at an impasse due to tightening budgets and low salaries.
Obviously the union needs to show that there is available funds. And obviously the district needs to show that there are not available funds.
Marsha J. Murphy, special magistrate
Although impasse hearings are not black and white, Murphy said, magistrates look closely at the numbers while arriving at a decision.
Arbitrators will compare several factors, including how much other teachers make in similarly sized districts in the state, the availability of funds and how the contract could affect the public interest.
“Obviously, the union needs to show that there is available funds,” Murphy said. “And obviously the district needs to show that there are not available funds.”
Vogel anticipates the union pointing to higher salaries in Sarasota and Pinellas, but he said both of those districts receive more in funding and it is not a fair comparison.
Union lead negotiator Bruce Proud did not return a call seeking comment for this report.
By the numbers
Of the 2,805 teachers in the district, 2,303 teachers are covered by district health insurance, according to minutes from the July 12 negotiations between the union and the district. Of those covered, 932 teachers include their spouse and/or their family on the plan, meaning about 40 percent of Manatee teachers on the district’s health plan would see sharp increases in their premiums. The minutes state the district used figures from last April because that is typically the month with the highest levels of employment.
Of the 1,357 teachers who cast ballots on the tentative agreement, 479, or 35 percent, voted yes and 878, or 65 percent, voted no, according to figures obtained by the Bradenton Herald and confirmed by Manatee Education Association head Pat Barber.
This whole attitude of them against us is detrimental to what is going on in the classroom.
Don Falls, teacher at Manatee High School
But because only roughly 50 percent of the district’s teachers voted, Vogel contended the union should have voted again, especially now that teachers know they could lose their retroactive pay.
Retroactive pay typically amounts to half of an annual salary increase, and teachers usually receive the retroactive checks at the end of the year. Under the tentative agreement the teachers voted down, teachers would have received on average a $900 pay raise for the 2016-17 school year, effective retroactively to July 1. If the contract had been ratified, teachers would have received an average of $450 in retroactive pay after ratification.
Falls, the Manatee High economics teacher, viewed the potential loss of retroactive pay as “arm-twisting” by the district.
“This whole attitude of them against us is detrimental to what is going on in the classroom,” Falls said.
Back and forth
During budget negotiations over the summer and fall, the teachers union argued the district could offset the increased premiums by using funds from the district’s health insurance fund, a separate account holding reserves to pay out claims.
Vogel said AON, the risk management and insurance brokerage firm advising the district, recommends having at least 60 days of reserves in the funds. That number fluctuates throughout the year depending on the number of claims. Vogel said the district had been warned before about having low reserves in the health insurance fund, and he was not comfortable using those funds to offset premium increases.
Vogel repeatedly lamented paltry state funding during negotiations and said the district was doing everything it could to pay teachers fairly. The district only received a 1 percent increase in funding from the state this year.
But union negotiators didn’t buy the notion that the district couldn’t pony up funds to ease the premium increases. And Barber said union negotiators did not consider a second vote, even with the threat of losing retroactive pay.
You can’t re-vote just because you don’t like how it turned out.
Pat Barber, head of Manatee Education Association
“Asking for a re-vote will only make people angry. We are not interested in saying we didn’t like the outcome of the vote. That would be out of the norm,” Barber said. “You can’t re-vote just because you don’t like how it turned out.”
But the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union representing district bus drivers, cafeteria workers, maintenance workers and custodians, ratified the contract after the second vote was counted Saturday afternoon, Vogel said.The group initially turned down the agreement as well.
Vogel said it is possible that of the four groups independently bargaining — the teachers, administrators, AFSCME and the paraprofessionals — the teachers could be the only group to reject the agreement.
“You've got the administration group moving forward, paraprofessionals are moving forward and AFSCME is re-voting, so we feel concerned because the teachers are in this situation,” Vogel said.
Vogel said since the teachers did not ratify the agreement, they would be the only district employees to lose their retroactive pay.