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Arbitrator backs Pinellas middle school teachers

An arbitrator has ruled that the new seven-period schedule in Pinellas middle schools violates the teachers' contract and should be undone in time for the second semester.

The ruling was a major victory for Pinellas teachers, who vigorously complained that the schedule increased class loads and reduced their planning time. District officials, meanwhile, said returning to the old six-period day when the second semester begins Jan. 20 would create havoc in the county's 21 regular middle schools.

"Everybody would have a totally new schedule," superintendent Julie Janssen said. She also said the ruling would erase $2.2-million in savings from the new schedule, plus another $7-million that was to be saved by enacting a similar seven-period day in high schools next year.

The district needed those savings to hold the projected budget shortfall for 2009-10 to $40-million. Without it, Janssen said, the shortfall could approach $50-million.

"It's a financial disaster," she said.

Officials for Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association said district officials were exaggerating the impact of the ruling on the budget and on students.

"It's not the end of the world," said union president Kim Black.

The district and the union met for two hours Monday night, trying in vain to find common ground. Christopher M. Shulman, the arbitrator who heard the teachers' class-action grievance last month, strongly urged the sides to find a compromise, notwithstanding his decision in favor of the teachers.

The district and its employee unions have for years enjoyed a cordial "collaborative bargaining" process. But the middle school schedule issue is an example of how fraying finances can damage even the best relationships.

The schedule has been a major issue as the district and union have tried to negotiate a new three-year contract. The old one expired June 30.

"There's a lot of frustration, and this is icing on the cake," Janssen said, noting the district does not plan raises this year or next.

The School Board voted in early June to institute a seven-period day in middle schools, primarily as a big money saver but also as a way to bring reform.

The change makes room in the schedule for remedial courses that the state mandates for struggling students. It also clears room for a state-mandated PE class plus more electives that the district says will get students more interested in school.

The day was lengthened by 14 minutes, and teachers were required to teach six periods rather than the maximum of five called for in their contract.

In essence, the district saved money by getting more work from the same number of teachers for no extra pay — a concept the teachers found galling.

Instead of teaching students 59 percent of their work day under the old schedule, they teach 64 percent of their day under the new one. They also see more students.

In addition, teachers lost planning time, which is a key factor as the district and union discuss a compromise.

The district is proposing a "block" schedule that would spread seven periods over a two-week cycle, with some classes lasting 90 minutes. The union says the idea does not allow for daily lesson planning time called for in the contract.

"It's impossible to do a good job unless you have time to plan," Black said. "Teachers are not asking for more time off or more time to go home."

While the district's idea does not offer a planning period every day, it does offer more planning time overall when calculated over 10 days, Janssen said.

Shulman declined to award teachers back pay, saying they had lost planning time, not pay.

Arbitrator backs Pinellas middle school teachers 12/02/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 7, 2008 10:28am]
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