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Failure to agree not an option for teachers, district

Published Aug. 31, 2005

After so many years together, it is only natural that they sometimes rub each other the wrong way and disagree on some important points. In short, they have "issues."

"You don't listen to what's being said; you just make up your mind, and that's that."

"Oh, yeah? Well, you only think about yourself."

"You said to be specific with any criticisms, and then you just ignore the evidence."

"That's because you aren't looking at the whole picture, just one little piece of it."

"You don't always tell the truth, you're hard-headed and obstinate and you have no respect for anyone else."

"Well, you're acting like a crybaby, and you don't appreciate what has been done for you over all the years."

It is painfully clear that the two sides are incapable of settling their problems by themselves, so it's for the best that they seek outside guidance. To that end, the Citrus County teachers union and the district administration are heading for mediation to try to work out a contract.

Maybe a marriage counselor would be a better choice.

As in many troubled relationships, the sticking point is money. The district controls the checkbook, and the teachers want a bigger weekly allowance. Specifically, the teachers want more money to help colleagues who were caught by the district's five-year cap on credit for experience.

In the past, teachers entering the system with more years of experience were given credit for only five years when their pay was set. Earlier this year, the state said that new teachers must be paid for their full experience but left it to the districts to sort out how to help those who were caught in the cap trap since the mid 1990s.

The district is willing to "give back" three years' experience, but says the money for that, about $350,000, must come from the $1.7-million already set aside for raises for all teachers. That would mean smaller raises for the noncapped teachers.

The union says the district's budget is grossly padded and there is money available to fix the problem without harming other teachers. The district disagrees.

Show us the money, the district negotiators challenged. The union produced an analysis that they said shows more than $2-million in fat. We're not asking for all of it, they say, just a $350,000 piece.

If finding that chunk of change were the sole problem, the two sides probably could work it out. But the atmosphere has become so acrimonious that it is unlikely that the dueling negotiators would even agree that the sky is blue.

After years of trench warfare between such strong personalities, it is no surprise that emotions and tempers sometimes get in the way.

Teacher negotiators, burning with frustration, bark that the district's leaders "don't value educators" and don't treat the workers with respect. They grumble about the tactics of the district's team, especially those of longtime negotiator Ed Murphy, whom they term "a bully." From mind games and power plays, like showing up late and unprepared for sessions, then going into long caucuses that leave the teachers waiting and simmering, they telegraph to the teachers that they are the big dogs.

These antics raise the legitimate question of whether the district is bargaining in good faith or at least trying to foster a productive atmosphere. And if Murphy is a bully, is he acting on his own or simply playing the role given him by district leaders who want a bulldog representing their interests at the table?

Superintendent David Hickey told the Times he was bothered about his team's tactics, but said of the union, "They're a hard team, too."

"Trust is an easy word to say, but where is their trust?" Hickey asked. He noted that the union is not above its own nastiness, citing some particularly biting commentary aimed at him in a newsletter circulating through the district. "What kind of collaboration is that?"

The two sides must get past this emotional warfare and figure out some way to communicate and get along because divorce is not an option.

They have no choice but to live together.

And it's high time that the five members of the School Board get involved.

They should not try to negotiate a contract, but they can remind both sides that educating children, not fighting over dollars and cents, should be the primary focus of every district employee.

Going to an impasse has created something of a trial separation, a cooling-off period, even though it means that mediation won't begin until April on a contract for the current school year, which began in August.

This settlement may be reached just about the time that the slugging begins on next year's contract.

In the meantime, the union announced Friday that it had issued a "work to the rule" order, meaning that teachers should do only what their contract requires, nothing more.

Since the teachers, by law, can't strike, this is the next closest action they can take.

This being the FCAT season, with the school year winding down and final exams coming up, it's distressing to think how this fallout from the contract battle will filter into the classroom.

Because just as in any confrontation between adults in a relationship, shunted to the side is the burning question: What about the children?