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Teachers don black, press for answers

With two months left in the school year, no new contract in sight and labor negotiations stalled, dozens of Citrus teachers showed their frustration by wearing black to work this week.

About 20 showed up at the School Board meeting Tuesday afternoon in their somber attire. One urged a quick resolution to the contract stalemate and put the board on notice that teachers need to feel valued.

"We are dedicated to realizing the mission of this school district, but year after year we see negotiations stall until we are almost at the end of the school year," said CREST teacher Merrilee Roy. She said she works hard each day to help students learn, despite their disabilities, but "we are thanked for that dedication with salary offers so offensive that we are forced into mediation."

Terry Flaherty, president of the teachers union, which is called the Citrus County Education Association, quizzed the board on budget specifics.

The board referred the specific questions to staffers, but board members tried to explain that they also have sought detailed budget information from staffers, so they know how the dollars are spent.

School Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick told Flaherty his issues had been referred to superintendent David Hickey and that traditionally the board stops discussions once that happens.

But Flaherty persisted.

"With negotiations at impasse, when you have dollars added on or taken away (in the budget) there are going to be questions," he said.

Fitzpatrick said those discussions were better completed in bargaining than before the board. Again, Flaherty insisted that his questions deserved to be heard. The board was about to vote on budget amendments and, he said, needed to hear that teachers were questioning any transfers within the budget.

Hickey said he wanted to give the teachers answers and promised a quick response.

The teachers declared an impasse in talks several weeks ago over pay raises and other issues.

Union officials say their budget analysis has found hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be spent on pay raises. Administrators have quibbled with the report, noting that the budget is complex and that many dollars can't be used for raises.

The administration has told the union that raise money and funds to correct a salary inequity that affects some veteran teachers must come from the same pot; the union says administrators should correct that inequity with separate money.

Noting the union's efforts to find money, Roy, the CREST teacher, told the board that teachers thought the union had "bent over backwards to settle this contract fairly."

"This hide-and-seek game of salary negotiations only erodes the confidence we have in the School Board," she said. "We want to believe that the board considers us effective, professional employees. Therefore, if the board truly feels we are up to the task of making a difference in this school system, please settle these contracts."

Her words inspired a standing ovation from her fellow teachers.

The board had no further response beyond promising Flaherty answers. Board members had met behind closed doors with their bargaining team leader, Ed Murphy, before Tuesday's meeting to discuss negotiating strategy.

The union and administration teams will meet with a mediator in April.

Meanwhile, the union has urged teachers to "work to the rule" and avoid giving any time outside their contract obligations. They are to wear black on Tuesdays and urge their co-workers to do the same.

_ Barbara Behrendt can be reached at or 564-3621.