As Gov. Rick Scott urges school districts around the state to finalize contracts with unionized teachers so they can get state money for raises, stalled bargaining talks in Monroe County are set to restart on Dec. 18, this time under the direction of labor attorney Bob Norton.
Scott sent the 67 district superintendents a letter on Dec. 2 urging "any district that has not yet reached a final agreement to contact Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart so we can offer any assistance possible to expedite this district-level process."
The centerpiece of Scott's education budget is a $480 million earmark for teacher raises. In Monroe, that amounts to $1.4 million (90 percent raised by local taxpayers).
In November, Stewart contacted Monroe County School District Superintendent Mark Porter to tell him his plan for the $1.4 million, which is to do away with a seven-day unpaid furlough program that has saved $1.7 million per year since 2011, runs counter to the intent and letter of the legislation authorizing the raises.
Porter says the district is working on a plan to cover the impending seven-figure budget shortfall, although he hasn't specifically targeted particular funding sources or program cuts.
"What I've continued to say is we are not going to revisit the furlough program and we're not going to tap into our fund reserves," he said.
Speaking of Scott's letter, Porter says, "I think it's very political in nature. We're appreciative of the resources and additional revenue that has been provided but I think it's important that, while it's approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, 90 percent of it is raised by local taxpayers."
Beginning in June Porter led negotiations with the United Teachers of Monroe on a one-year employment contract to cover the 2013-14 school year, which is well under way.
After 25 sessions, including mediation, the two sides couldn't come to terms on contract language that allows the School Board to invoke furlough days in the first place, despite the unpaid days not being on the table.
Norton will replace Porter as the district's chief negotiator for the Dec. 18 session, beginning at 3:30 p.m. at the district offices on Trumbo Road in Key West.
Twenty-eight districts have finalized contracts with teacher pay raises, while another 15 have tentative agreements pending.
Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters says while Scott suggested resolution by the end of the year, the funding will stay in place until the end of the fiscal year on Aug. 31.
UTM President Holly Hummell-Gorman says the "teacher salary increase allocation funds are to be distributed for new salary increases" as opposed to ending the furlough program.
School Board Chairman Ron Martin is at a Florida School Board Association meeting in Tampa and couldn't be reached for comment. But last week, he said, "we'll be able to" the close the funding gap "without going into our reserves and without going into the classroom."
Board member John Dick agreed with Martin's assessment adding, "And that's a good thing, but where does the money actually come from?"