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Superintendent rejects a ruling that Pinellas middle schools return to six classes

The Pinellas teachers union and the school district are in a serious standoff over a new seven-period schedule for middle schools.

Superintendent Julie Janssen has taken a hard stand, saying in a letter to the union that she will not return to the old six-period day when the second semester starts Jan. 20, even though an arbitrator ordered the district to do so.

"That's a problem for us," said Mark Herdman, the union's lawyer. "They can't just ignore us and ignore the arbitrator. It doesn't work that way."

If Janssen goes through with her plan next Tuesday, the union will sue the district, Herdman and union president Kim Black said Monday. The papers have been drawn up and are ready to be filed, Herdman said.

About 22,000 middle school students are stuck in the crossfire with just six days to go before the second semester begins.

If the district has its way, their class schedules will remain the same. But if the union sues and a judge intervenes in favor of the union, their schedules could change.

At issue is a new schedule started in August that lengthened the middle school day by 14 minutes, and added a seventh period. The district's 1,500 middle school teachers were required to teach six classes instead of the maximum of five called for in their contract. Students had one more class, and all of their classes were a few minutes shorter.

District officials, citing the state budget crisis, said the change would save $2.2-million and make room in the schedule for state-mandated PE and remedial courses for struggling students. They also said it made room for elective courses to get middle school students more interested in school.

The change began as a way to address Pinellas' stagnant dropout rate by engaging kids in academics before they got to high school. But it also became a money saver, allowing the district to meet the demands of the class size amendment without having to pay for more teachers.

Teachers have complained that the new schedule adds to their class loads and gives them less time to plan lessons.

After several teachers filed grievances in the fall, arbitrator Christopher M. Shulman ruled Nov. 26 that the new schedule violated the teachers' contract and ordered the district to restore the six-period schedule in time for the second semester.

More negotiations followed, then Janssen decided last week that returning to the old schedule would be too disruptive to students. She also said there wasn't enough time to undergo a schedule change so soon before the new semester.

Among her concerns: The change would occur just before Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests in February and March. She said the continuity of some classes would be disrupted and that some students risked having to drop electives they need to get into special high school programs.

She also warned that some teachers could lose their jobs if the old schedule returned.

Black, the union president, countered that the current schedule hurts students because the shorter class times of 48 minutes translate to 14 days of lost instruction in core subjects over the year.

She questioned some of the consequences Janssen cited and argued that the district had months to plan for the possibility it would have to change the schedule mid year.

Responding for the district, School Board attorney Jim Robinson said a lawsuit would be unfortunate because the district "remains willing and eager" to keep bargaining toward an agreement.

Superintendent rejects a ruling that Pinellas middle schools return to six classes 01/12/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 7:27am]
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