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Broward School Board ends teacher negotiations without giving raises

Contentious contract negotiations between the Broward School Board and the teachers union finally ended Monday night — without teachers getting pay raises.

The board settled the impasse with a unanimous vote to adopt a special magistrate’s non-binding recommendations. The recommendations support the district’s stance that salary increases are impractical in a climate of state funding cuts, declining tax revenues and rising health insurance costs.

“The School Board has said time and time again that there’s no ability to pay,” board member Maureen Dinnen said. “This is not just a little budget difficulty. They call it the Great Recession because it’s the biggest economic debacle since the Great Depression.”

Hundreds of teachers protested in the parking lot at Plantation High School before the hearing, which started at 5:19 p.m. They carried signs saying, “Teachers can’t live on apples alone.” Others had the words “Who’s next?” placed above pictures of imprisoned former board member Beverly Gallagher and suspended board member Stephanie Kraft and her husband.

Teachers urged board members to ignore the magistrate and approve 2 percent raises based on experience, plus $1,500 increases for teachers at the top of the salary schedule. The total tab: about $36 million.

“Tonight we will put a human face on this year’s negotiations,” union president Pat Santeramo told a crowd of more than 200 angry teachers.

Gretchen Marfisi, a 28-year art teacher at Nova High School in Davie, was laid off and rehired twice by the district. She lost 25 years of seniority when she relocated from Miami-Dade County.

“My heart, my spirit and my enthusiasm have been crushed,” said Marfisi, who taught advanced placement art history at West Broward High School last year. “Now a teacher who never taught high school or art [teaches] this course. My master’s degree and national board certification felt nonexistent.”

Hal Krantz, a special education teacher at Coral Springs Middle who’s at the top of the salary schedule, said the economy is causing havoc for everyone, especially educators, which is why their raises are even more necessary.

“Now when it’s time for us to get our final pay raises so we can get an equitable chance in this economy, you’re saying no,” Krantz said. “What are we supposed to do?”

Ignoring the poster prohibiting placards or signs inside the high school’s auditorium, , outside teachers waved signs, cheered and booed as Santeramo and the union lawyer spoke. Each side — the union and the district — got 90 minutes to present its case.

“If you will let us just open your mind to walk through the black-and-white evidence, you will see that this is over a $3 billion budget that is, in essence, making Bernie Madoff look good,” union attorney Mark Richards told the board. “It’s just wrong. You plan with your general fund balance like a kid plays with his allowance.”

James J. Brady, the special magistrate, said in July he does not doubt the teachers deserve raises, given the school district’s A rating from the state. However, “these are extraordinary times calling for extraordinary discipline and sacrifice.”

Brady, of the Florida Public Employment Commission, did side with the Broward Teachers Union on another contract issue.

The district wanted to reduce class schedules offered in the county from six to one. Some students, for example, take a class in 90-minute blocks every other day, while others take the same class every day for a shorter time period. Brady said there is no evidence to substantiate the merits of such a change.

District officials tried for months to fill a $130 million budget hole created by state funding cuts, a drop in property values and the need to meet stricter class-size limits. They laid off teachers and non-instructional employees, eliminated some benefits, introduced five- to six-day furloughs, and increased property taxes.

But that was before the district received an unexpected, one-time injection of $54 million in federal stimulus money that it used to rehire teachers and school staff, reinstate elective classes, bring back magnet coordinators, and return furloughed hours.

The union, which represents about 14,000 teachers, argues that money should be used for raises.

“This is about finances not about personalities, not about name calling,” board member Kevin Tynan told the crowd. “If the money was here, we wouldn’t be fighting about it.”

Board member Phyllis Hope was absent from Monday’s meeting.

The raises would have been retroactive for the 2009-10 school year. Negotiations haven’t started for the 2010-11 year. They are tentatively scheduled to begin Nov. 4.

Santeramo speculated that next year’s negotiations will follow a similar path.

“We’re going to make this the BTU central office because we’ll be here next year,” he said at the end of the meeting.

The School Board filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the union with the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission, accusing the union of refusing to start contract negotiations for the 2010-11 school year. The district wants the commission to force teachers to the bargaining table.

Notter has said that next year’s contract is critical because it will affect Broward’s ability to collect $37 million in federal Race to the Top dollars.

To get the money, the district must turn around its three most struggling schools, improve graduation rates, shrink the achievement gap among students, and improve test scores on standardized national assessments.

But one of its biggest challenges — the one requiring the most union collaboration — is creating a detailed merit pay plan that includes extra pay for teachers and principals based not on advanced degrees, but on how much students improve. The union must sign off on the district’s plans or Broward won’t get its cash.

“Teachers rightfully fear the millions of tax dollars will also be wasted by School Board members,” the union’s statement said of the Race to the Top dollars.

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