The Manatee County school board made a tactful yet surprising decision during an executive session Monday night to rescind a retroactive reduction on teacher salaries. Mired in a tough political conundrum over the hugely unpopular pay cuts and teacher protests, the board had imposed the reductions during an impasse hearing in mid-February.
At that time, the board placed a higher priority on eliminating the district’s health insurance fund deficit and putting the medical plan in the black this year. Now, the district faces an estimated $1.5 million deficit by June 2012 and will be forced to deal with the shortfall during discussions over the 2012-2013 fiscal year already under way.
But that predicament pales in comparison with the current volatile situation. With this policy switch, the board avoids costly and lengthy litigation with the Manatee Education Association. The district has come under fire for questionable judgment on litigation in the past, and any court action now would have reignited the public outcry.
Instead of a retroactive pay cut back to August 2011, salaries will be trimmed by 1.75 percent as of the impasse vote on Feb. 15. The next 11 paychecks will be cut by $44 to $70 for teachers with bachelor’s degrees as opposed to the $96 to $154 under the retroactive scenario. That still amounts to a $425 pay loss for the average teacher.
In another welcome surprise, the board directed Superintendent Tim McGonegal to compose a plan to be fair to other district employees who have endured pay cuts since August. Thus, the remaining paychecks for non-instructional staff and administrators will be increased once the board approves.
A Sunshine violation?
But the school board did stumble in making this decision during an executive session in violation of Florida Statute 286.011. The law requires the board to take such votes in public meetings.
The statute states, in part: “All meetings of any board or commission of any state agency or authority ... at which official acts are to be taken are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times, and no resolution, rule, or formal action shall be considered binding except as taken or made at such meeting.”
That would appear to void the decision, requiring another vote in the Sunshine.
The Legislature bears the lion’s share of the blame for slashing spending on school districts this fiscal year, forcing Manatee County to cut $14 million out of the budget. Over the past four years, the district has eliminated $60 million in spending.
Even as the Legislature stands poised to increase public school spending by about $1 billion for 2012-2013, that money does not replace this year’s cuts nor cover the extra expenses coming with the anticipated jump in student enrollment.
With Manatee’s school board embroiled in internal dissension and mistrust over spending priorities, the budget process promises to be volatile again.
The best way to bridge that gap is through open and honest discussions with everything on the table all the facts and figures about administrative and consultant expenditures, first and foremost per resolute public demands.