No peanut allergies - Whew!

skinney@keynoter.comMay 11, 2013 

After years of impasse between the United Teachers of Monroe and School District administration, a Thursday bargaining session yielded some preliminary consensus.

For instance the district's negotiating team led by Superintendent Mark Porter agreed to provide snacks and coffee for the next fete beginning a back-and-forth swapping of responsibilities for "treats and refreshments."

That was the name of the applicable tab - which grabbed nearly 20 minutes of discussion - on a checklist Porter presented during the meeting.

Hired in August, Porter fondly recalled past bargaining sessions at previous jobs where exotic fare like pizza and Chinese take out were provided.

And it was established that no one in the group, comprising five highly paid administrators and three union reps, had any peanut allergies or an aversion to chocolate.

Since its inception in 2010, UTM has been challenging the tenets of a three-year contract that, among other points of contention, mandated seven unpaid furlough days for all staff.

That process culminated last month with the School Board officially acknowledging an impasse, meaning the furloughs stand and UTM's grievances won't be redressed.

"I know we kind of came to an abrupt end, so to speak, for the last round," Porter opened. "I know that was a very difficult and challenging evening. Hopefully we can move ahead from that."

With that he proposed the two sides operate under what's called "interest-based bargaining," and even handed out a three-decades old management text, "Getting to Yes," that describes the process.

"It's really the interests of both sides you're trying to satisfy," Porter said. "One of the things that will happen, and if it works it works well...we will end up with an agreement or a solution that neither one of us even thought about coming into this session."

"Hidden behind interests are the positions. There're certain solutions we think are better than others."

Noticeably absent from the session was former Superintendent Jesus Jara's lead negotiator, Bob Norton, a highly paid labor attorney whose past negotiations with UTM bordered on a kind of sport once labeled "bear baiting."

UTM President Holly Hummell-Gorman said removing Norton from the process would help "improve teacher morale."

Central to the negotiations underway in Monroe County is a legislative mandate that all Florida districts base teacher pay on evaluations. That mandate, which begins in 2014, requires in large part consideration of student scores on standardized tests.

Different methodologies are being tried in the 67 districts around Florida and virtually none have proved satisfactory to all stakeholders: teachers, unions, administrators and state lawmakers.

This week Gov. Rick Scott has toured the state touting a $480 million legislative earmark for teacher raises that he initially proposed be treated as an across-the-board $2,500 raise.

The House and Senate tweaked that so it's now tied to performance evaluations and includes a broader scope of employees, such as guidance counselors and other non-classroom professionals.

Hummell-Gorman said there's still substantial work to be done on the evaluation/performance piece of the puzzle, but alluded to other items that would be easier to agree upon.

"The evaluation piece is huge and is going to take us a great amount of time," she said. "There are other things I feel like we could probably come to agreement pretty quick on."

Both sides are working on a schedule of future meeting dates with bargaining expected to go on over the summer, and classes set to resume in late August.

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