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Middle school schedule still divides Pinellas schools, union

In the end, Pinellas school officials say they got what they wanted after a contentious months-long battle with the teachers union: an extra period for middle school students and $1.1 million in savings.

But getting there involved violating the teachers' contract, going before an arbitrator, facing a lawsuit, and —- finally — reaching a settlement in favor of the teachers last week.

So, was it worth it?

Associate superintendent Ron Stone, who has negotiated the district's contracts with the union for years, thinks the district came out ahead.

The extra class period for middle school students made room for state-mandated PE and remedial classes, as well as electives, which district officials say keep kids from dropping out.

The district saved money by requiring teachers to be in class a larger percentage of the day, eliminating the need to hire more of them for this academic year.

But union president Kim Black says all of that came about because the district knowingly violated the teachers' contract when the School Board voted in June to force them to teach an extra period without offering them more money.

"The long-term cost is immeasurable," Black said. "A district that's had a rich history of collaboration has devalued and demoralized its work force."

Black said the move also shortchanged students, whose class times were cut from 53 or 54 minutes per period to 48 minutes, the equivalent of 14 days of lost instruction in core subjects over the year.

Stone disagrees that students were harmed, insisting that the schedule change was launched in the name of middle school reform.

"In the end, I think we did what was right for them," he said, "although maybe we didn't do it the way we could have done it."

The district had hoped to save $2.2 million this year by requiring teachers to teach the extra period. That amount was cut in half Tuesday when an out-of-court settlement handed $1.1 million to the teachers as compensation for teaching the longer day.

That amounts to about $800 for each of the 1,500 middle school teachers on whose behalf a lawsuit was filed last month.

The suit had asked the court to uphold an arbitrator's order in November that the district return to the old six-period day by the start of this semester, which began Jan. 20. District officials had refused to comply with the order, saying it would be too disruptive for about 22,000 middle school students.

Under the terms of the settlement, schools will have the option of remaining on the current seven-period day for the rest of the academic year or going to a "floating seven" block schedule that will allow for uninterrupted planning time before the school day begins.

Board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea maintains that it would have been possible to add the extra period without violating the teachers' contract if there had been more lead time. As it turned out, O'Shea said, the district was in a financial crisis and needed to take steps immediately to cut costs.

"Ultimately, we had to do what the kids needed," she said. "They needed seven classes."

But board member Janet Clark said that in hindsight, she would not have voted in June to require teachers to teach six out of seven periods when their contract stipulated they could not be required to teach more than five periods a day.

She said as much back in October, when she apologized to teachers at a board meeting. In light of what came after that — the arbitrator's ruling, the district's refusal to honor it, the lawsuit and Tuesday's settlement — Clark said she's even more convinced that the district made a mistake.

"The $1.1 million is beside the point," she said. "The damage that was done to relationships is much more important to me than the money."

The intention going forward is to bargain the provision for a seven-period day for both middle and high school students for next year, Stone said. That could be accomplished in one of several ways, including a "block" schedule that allows for 90-minute classes. To accommodate the longer classes, subjects would alternate days because not every class would fit into each day.

District officials already are counting on a $6.1 million savings under the new proposal.

Middle school schedule still divides Pinellas schools, union 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 9:28pm]
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