Just weeks into the new school year, the Orange County school district has declared an impasse with the local teachers union, calling for a third party to step in to mediate talks over salaries and working conditions.
Both parties are battling it out over a labor contract covering about 14,000 educators in the Orange County school system. After two months, they’re struggling to reach an agreement on issues like pay that are reopened for discussion each year.
Needless to say, it’s a stressful time in public education: Florida educators are facing new, divisive policies governing what books they can have in their classrooms, what they can teach, their bathroom usage, and grappling with an ongoing teacher shortage, as well as a new state law that threatens the very existence of their union.
Union president Clinton McCracken, a former middle school art teacher at Howard Middle School, says this latest move by the district doesn’t help. “Morale is certainly affected by all combined together,” McCracken told Orlando Weekly.
The union president criticized Orange County Public Schools in a statement released Wednesday, sharing that the district has refused to meet educators’ demands for equitable pay raises for longtime teachers, addressing safety and maintenance issues in schools, and ensuring teachers’ health insurance costs don’t go through the roof, among other issues.
McCracken hopped on the phone with Orlando Weekly briefly Thursday morning to discuss the impasse, in between calls from the superintendent and teachers at two Orange County schools — Westpointe Elementary and MetroWest Elementary — experiencing emergency bathroom and sewage issues.
“Enough is enough,” McCracken said. “We cannot agree to a deal that devalues veteran teachers, imposes huge health insurance increases, and ignores school safety concerns.”
Air conditioning issues in schools have been at the forefront of this, said McCracken, amid record-breaking heat in Florida.
The Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, representing 14,000 educators in public schools, wants the district to come up with a tracking system so teachers can at least keep tabs on work orders they submit. The district, per the union, rejected this.
The Orange CTA, affiliated with larger state and national labor unions, is also fighting to keep teachers from leaving the school district of over 200,000 students, in droves.
Each year, the labor union reopens salary talks with the school district, and this year, as in years past, one of the most contentious issues on the table is ensuring equitable pay for teachers with seniority.
The union ties this call to action to students, whose education they say is directly affected by seasoned teachers leaving the profession and potentially unqualified professionals stepping in to fill the vacancies in their wake.
State law isn’t very friendly on this subject. Florida governor, amateur smiler and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis likes to point to the highly publicized bonuses his administration throws at educators (while throwing their unions under the bus).
But, even with a demand from DeSantis to raise minimum teacher pay to $47,500, Florida still ranks near dead-last in average teacher pay (different from starting salary), and state law limits the raises that longtime teachers on continuing contracts can receive compared to educators on annual contracts.
Union leaders (not just in Orange County) say this leaves behind teachers with decades of experience, some of whom make little more than colleagues who are new to the profession.
The difference in Orange County, according to McCracken, is that other school districts in Florida, such as Broward and Osceola Counties, have addressed this by using a percentage algorithm for raises based on experience.
A spokesperson for the Orange County school district declined to answer specific questions from Orlando Weekly, but directed us to a webpage where the district claims they’re unable to do a percentage increase, citing the Florida Department of Education’s adherence to state statutes.
McCracken pushed back on this.
“Other districts are currently paying percentages to their employees and have been doing it for years,” he said. “Those pay structures have been approved by the Department of Education, so it’s concerning that in Orange County, we continue to say, ‘Well, it’s not allowed according to statute.’”
The district’s offer does include a $1,375 minimum cost-of-living adjustment (with higher raises for “effective” or “highly effective” educators), plus lump-sum “retention” supplements for teachers with at least five years on the job.
McCracken says it’s not good enough.
“Teachers are having difficulty paying their bills on a teacher salary, and many are leaving the profession because of it,”
“Teachers are having difficulty paying their bills on a teacher salary, and many are leaving the profession because of it,” he said. “Many are also taking in roommates because they can’t afford their rent. They can’t afford to live in the neighborhood where they teach, so we have several people who have left the county and moved out of the county because they can’t afford to live here.”
The union’s also calling on the district to compensate teachers for work performed outside of the required workday, to give teachers more planning time, and to declare Juneteenth (June 19) an official OCPS holiday. “It says something about what our district stands for,” said McCracken.
The last major grievance is healthcare costs. After three years of staving off healthcare premium increases, the district says “changes” to existing health plans are necessary due to inflationary pressures.
That doesn’t sit well with the union, which demanded the district refrain from increasing healthcare costs. “There are proactive things that they could be doing where they wouldn’t have to be pushing these costs onto teachers who are already underpaid.”
Representatives of the school district “walked away” from negotiations with the teacher union on Wednesday, according to McCracken, declaring impasse for the second time in three years.
Usually, when this happens, the case goes to a special magistrate with the Public Employees Relations Commission, who will hear arguments from both sides and issue their own recommendation. If both sides don’t agree to it, that goes to the school board for a public hearing.
Here in Orange County, McCracken says teachers are “still weighing our options.”
One of three things could happen: The district could come back to the bargaining table, the case could go to the special magistrate, or it could go directly to the county school board, which has several union-friendly allies.
If teachers didn’t have a union at all, the district’s proposal would simply be imposed on teachers. McCracken sees a silver lining in this struggle, as frustrating as the process might be, in that at least there’s a chance for the union to fight on behalf of teachers.
Impasse, he admitted is “not a quick process,” adding, “We’re encouraging the district to come back to the table.”
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