A weekend interview with Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Kim Black
In the past, Pinellas school district-employee relations were considered a model for the state of Florida. These days, not so much. Newly re-elected Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Kim Black spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the current state of affairs.
I wanted to talk with you about negotiations because they seem to be more heated in Pinellas than in most other parts of the state (although not Broward). What is your assessment of where things stand right now and how bad it is?
Well, the district declared impasse. ... And I think that is our No. 1 issue right now, that they declared impasse over the salary piece of our contract. We decided this year to do separate ratifications. The first was working conditions. We decided it was really important to lock in the working conditions that our employees have, in the face of the financial downturn. We felt that protecting the workers' rights was important, even though the salary is also important. The difference here is, you were asking if it's more adversarial.
It's probably more noticeable because it's never been like this before in Pinellas County. You mentioned Broward. They've had this ongoing relationship for years. But this is new to us.
What do you think is the difference? Is it the superintendent?
You know, I think none of us has ever faced a financial situation like this before. And it's very easy, when you have a huge challenge like this, the easiest road to me is cutting salaries and benefits and increasing the work load of the workers. That's the easiest thing for management to do. But I really believe it's a measure of your character how you handle adversity. And I think when you have the right people in the right places at the right time, sometimes a bad time can really turn out to bring about some positive change. It takes a lot of creativity, a lot of innovative thinking and a lot of trust to move forward in a time like this. And right now that's not happening.
So you're saying there's no trust right now?
Yes. I do believe the trust has been damaged. When we were at impasse before, we went over the middle school scheduling issue, it was severely damaged then. We were able to settle out of court then, and I think we were on the right path. Some people think impasse is just an easy thing to do, and that way a special magistrate can come in and make a decision. I don't necessarily believe that. I think if both parties can continue the conversation, eventually you can get to a compromise and what's right for the employees. Now, this round of impasse, specifically over the salary issue, we passed our proposal ... in the end of June. The district did not respond to our proposal and then three weeks later it came in the form of an impasse declaration.
That's a really weird thing. Because I remember Pinellas being in collaborative bargaining all the time and it was a model. ...
As a matter of fact, when I found out about this impasse we were at a conference with other union leaders across the state. And they were just talking about how Pinellas was the model for collaboration. Another way of looking at it is the interest based bargaining, that you have the same interest in that you're getting to the best result. It's so funny we were just talking about that and Marshall said, 'Have you seen your e-mail? The St. Pete Times just called and said that we're at impasse.'
And really, it was embarrassing because the other counties were like, 'Oh my gosh, if that's happening there and you've been collaborating for so many years.' But collaborative doesn't mean one side says 'Here's what we want' and the other side says, 'Okay, we're going to take it.' And that is what has been happening, that's what they're trying to do. And that's why it feels so new to us. And while it's not something we have experienced, we know how to get through it as evidenced by the middle school situation.
Do you get a sense, though, that the district is at least trying to do the best it can with the financial situation? Because I have seen in other districts when the teachers come out and say We want our money, the public comes out and says, 'We want our money too. We want our jobs too. You're not being realistic.' Do you get a sense there's some realism going on here?
In some areas, yes. But like I pointed out the other evening at the school board meeting, all these things that we have done as a district, like the school closings, reducing transportation, rezoning, as a matter of fact the additional class for the middle teachers -- none of those things was done in isolation. We did them together as compromises to help deal with these financial challenges. So when I read the superintendent's media release, that we've done all these things and the teachers need to understand this, I think the teachers understand it better than anyone. They're the ones that have done it with the district. Here they are in front of the classroom with the students, and the students are coming to them more fragile than before. They're homeless. Their parents have lost their jobs. And so they come to school as the institution of security and stability, where they know they will be protected and cared for along with learning. That's important for all districts to realize, that without a strong high-performing teacher in the classroom, you're going to have a big impact on student learning. That's why I have been saying the best investment for our children is a highly qualified valued and rewarded teacher.
But what do you say to the public who says, I haven't gotten a raise in a long time. Why do you get a raise?
I think that education has to be looked at in a different way. It's not like a company where we can say, we're going to cut back this area of the company ... or cut back production because the economy is in a downward spiral. Next year, the ninth grade is going to show up. All students. They keep coming. ... And parents expect and students deserve a high quality education. In order to provide a high quality education you have to provide a high performing teacher. And the best way to do that is is rewarding them for their experience, their accomplishments. In Pinellas County in particular. There have been two times where we have gone to the public for a local tax referendum, and they have passed it to reward teachers and their salary schedule. ... I think the Pinellas citizens have spoken loud and clear that they value a high quality education and to get that you have to have a high performing teacher.
Do you see the district as just generally declining?
I think that's the school system overall in the state of Florida. It's in the constitution that every child be given the right to a high quality education. And when you see the Legislature not making that a high priority, it's disheartening. I wouldn't put it off on one county or another. But I would say that's a challenge for the entire state.
What about the class-size amendment. It seems like it's at direct odds with a lot of what's going on here. You want to keep all these teachers, but at some point we're going to have to hire more and more.
I don't see that here in Pinellas County. We do believe in the class-size amendment because the students deserve attention from their teacher. ... In Pinellas County, with declining enrollment, I don't see the need to increase the teaching units. We have 8400 teachers right now. Over the past 10 years we have lost 11,000 students. ... I have questioned the district why they keep hiring people that are not directly in front of the students. Because to me that's exactly what it takes. ...
That's another area of the budget that we have been looking at. I have not seen them cut back in the area of class size. For two years they have had $9 million in that line. That could be cut back to aid with teacher salaries....
It seems like people get upset about this but nobody goes to the board and makes a great stink about it. Do you think there needs to be more ... vocal activity?
Yes. When we coordinated with the PTA the Rally in Tallahassee ... that was public outcry at the outrage of the Legislature not funding education appropriately. In the summer it seems to be traditionally a slower time. ... once school starts up again and parents realize the programs their children had aren't there, the teacher they had isn't there ... We've never experienced this in Pinellas County where we've had to close schools two years in a row. Once parents see the direct impact all this is having on their child, that will help them to become more vocal. The citizens of Pinellas County have spoken so many times about how they value their children's education and their children's teacher. In order to provide that, it does take money.
Do you worry at all that if there is some sort of vocal activity, there might be some sort of backlash against the teachers?
I don't worry about that. If you look at any survey about who you trust most in society, teachers rise to the top. ... It's because everyone in their life has had a teacher who has affected them in a positive way. ...
What are your next steps? And when do you see something breaking through?
As far as contract negotiations, we are in the process of setting an appointment with district leaders to see if we can come to an agreement on th is. The Public Employees Relations Commission has sent letters to both parties with a list of special magistrates for selecting who we feel might be the best one. That will be over the next few weeks. Hopefully we'll be able to reach an agreement. And if we can't reach an agreement, it will be the special magistrate's job to determine what's the best resolution, and that will be presented to the School Board.
Which can accept it or reject it. So what's the point?
The point is, in this district there needs to be an unbiased third-party involved at this point. ... The relationship in this district has deteriorated to a level that's been unseen. I'm worried that it's becoming irreparable. And I know that this works in other districts. It's just something we haven't experienced before. I really believe we can reach resolution. But there's absolutely no way I can go to my employees and support a two-day furlough and the $290 salary reduction from the referendum.