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Dispute over Pinellas middle school schedule continues

Pinellas County middle schools will begin the second semester today under a legal cloud that has been gathering for months.

The teachers union is expected to file a lawsuit this morning intended to kill a new seven-period middle school schedule that, according to an arbitrator, violates the teachers' contract.

The district, meanwhile, took its own action late Monday by stating that it is at an impasse with the union over the schedule, a formal declaration that typically leads to mediation.

In short, the sides are proposing two very different ways of settling a long-running dispute. But it was unclear Monday which method would take precedence — battling it out in court or talking it out with a third party.

Either way, officials said schools would be untouched today and operate as usual. But the outcome could eventually affect students and teachers.

If a judge ordered the district to return to the old six-period day this semester, the district says Pinellas' 22,000 middle school students would face major disruptions.

Lost electives could keep some from advancing to high school or getting into magnet programs, and the schedules would be turned on their heads just before the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — consequences superintendent Julie Janssen called unacceptable.

Yet if the arbitrator's decision is not enforced, the union says, about 1,500 middle school teachers would be victims of a galling contract violation that consigns them to work harder and lose lesson planning time, all for the same pay.

"We're simply asking the judge to confirm the arbitrator's (decision)," said Mark Herdman, the union's lawyer.

Not even the School Board is of one mind on the issue.

"I guess it's just the teacher in me but I'm siding with the teachers in this," said board member Janet Clark, a former middle school teacher. "I have to. We have a contract, and I think the district has violated the contract."

Board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea said both sides have good arguments, but added that mediating the dispute while keeping the new schedule intact was best for students.

"Both sides have a common commitment and that's the kids," she said.

The issue goes back to June, when the School Board approved the schedule change as a budget-cutting measure, but also as a way to reform middle schools and meet state mandates. The district lengthened the school day by 14 minutes and added a seventh period that made room for state-mandated PE and remedial courses.

The change also cleared space for elective courses that are said to get students more engaged in school before they hit high school, when many start to lose interest and drop out.

But in tough budget times the measure saved $2.2-million, allowing the district to comply with the class size amendment without hiring more teachers.

Starting in August, middle school teachers were required to teach six classes instead of the maximum of five called for in their contract.

On Nov. 26, an arbitrator ruled that the new schedule violated the contract and ordered the district to return to the six-period schedule by today. Instead, the district focused on a nonbinding portion of the ruling in which the arbitrator expressed concern about the district's budget crisis and hoped for a compromise.

Janssen "is faced with a Hobson's choice. And if she's going to err, it's on the side of protecting students," School Board attorney Jim Robinson said. "It's not as if we're being cocky and just ignoring the arbitrator's award."

Dispute over Pinellas middle school schedule continues 01/19/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 20, 2009 7:13am]
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