By Donald Rodrigue
For Hometown News
MARTIN COUNTY -- Representatives for the Martin County School District and the Martin County Education Association went head-to-head on several pivotal issues during their ongoing contract negotiations July 9 but appeared to resolve very little.
The following day, the MCEA sent a bulletin to its members stating that 50 issues remain unresolved between the two organizations and hinted at legal action. In order to shave $2 million from the 2014-15 fiscal year budget, the district wants to end both retirement and annual sick leave payouts, raise employee insurance rates and end retiree health insurance after five years, among other measures.
Kim Sabol, staff attorney and chief negotiator for the school board, said during the early July meeting that the district currently has insufficient funds to maintain its "half a billion in assets."
"Our capital budget is suffering, and a lot of our facilities are in need of critical repairs," Ms. Sabol said.
"School board members want to find a solution rather than just getting us by from year to year. That's why they are looking at things like the $15.8 million that they spend every year in health insurance and the $12.3 million that's sitting out there in accrued sick leave."
Many of the hot-button issues discussed at the previous four meetings had caused tempers to flare, provoking MCEA chief negotiator Graham Picklesimer to call for calm.
"We're here to reach an agreement, we are not trying to stall or anything like that," Mr. Picklesimer said. "We've got some potentially tough choices to make ahead of us."
Some of the most controversial issues between the two organizations are being referred to by the district as management rights. These include the school board's request for the MCEA to waive its rights to grieve unjust discipline, negotiate health insurance and negotiate the cut scores of teacher evaluations.
The union has also expressed concern that the school board may want to reclassify certain jobs in the future in order to move those employees out of the bargaining unit. The district recently reclassified the teacher-on-assignment position, requiring several teachers to either be reassigned to the classroom or take a significant cut in pay and lose their union status. Ms. Sabol said that decision only affected seven or eight teachers.
"No one was required to take a $20,000 job cut in pay," she said. "They had a choice: the option to apply for the newly created job description that was outside of the instructional bargaining unit or go back into the classroom under their certification and teach."
Mr. Picklesimer emphasized that recent proposals by the school board to save money have appeared to be an attack on teachers.
"The concern I have with the tone the last couple of sessions have taken is that the district is going to be perceived by the teachers as coming after them," he said. "The reason we brought to you a lot of language proposals is to give the district the chance to show that its positions are strictly about money and not just about making things difficult for teachers."
Ms. Sabol insisted the district's proposals are not just targeting teachers.
"The proposals before you, although they are stark and harsh... are impacting every single employee in the district," she said. "Everything that you see here, the accrued sick leave proposal, the elimination of the retirement supplement, the change in the health insurance coverage, those are things that will impact every single employee in the district."
Ms. Sabol emphasized the district would not negotiate on its desire to use additional criteria besides the teachers' evaluation scores when determining whether to renew a teacher's year-to-year instructional contract. When Mr. Picklesimer informed her that all the districts surrounding Martin County were using only evaluation scores, she said she would not follow suit.
"I think that's a management right whether someone's offered a job from year-to-year," she explained.