School District, teachers union likely at a contract impasse

skinney@keynoter.comDecember 21, 2013 

Acknowledging fundamental disagreement, the most recent negotiation between the United Teachers of Monroe and the Monroe County School District over a contract has foreshadowed a likely labor impasse.

When the two sides can't agree on a contract, it's sent to mediation, then to a magistrate for a binding decision, according to Florida law.

UTM President Holly Hummell-Gorman maintains that a proposed contract provision that would allow the School Board to invoke unpaid furlough days for teachers and other staff has expired. Bob Norton, the district's chief negotiator, says it hasn't.

In a Wednesday meeting in Key West -- the first since negotiations broke down Oct. 30 after 25 formal go-arounds -- Hummell-Gorman, six minutes in, told Norton, "If we're going to go to impasse, go ahead and pull the trigger already."

The so-called "waiver language does not expire," Norton said. "I don't want to debate the law because I'm probably a lot better than you at that."

On Oct. 30, the district and UTM reached a tentative agreement that was never put to the union membership for ratification because the Florida Education Association, the union's legal umbrella, didn't agree with the furlough language.

"That came as a great surprise," Norton said. "It should have been put to ratification."

In 2011, the board mandated a seven-day unpaid furlough program that saved $1.7 million per year for two years. Superintendent Mark Porter and the board have maintained that the furloughs are gone but the language allowing them to be imposed, if finances dictate it, should stay in the contract.

The last time Norton was involved with the district, UTM challenged the furlough program unsuccessfully through the state Public Employee Relations Commission, then the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

This round of bargaining is for a one-year contract retroactive to June that covers the district's 525 teachers and 114 school-related personnel like bus drivers and food-service workers.

The majority of the Wednesday talks included the review of dozens of contract articles previously covered in the tentative agreement and which the two sides do not dispute.

Norton and a UTM team will come back to the table in 2014 although there's not yet a firm date.

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