Teachers across the Pinellas County school district voted Thursday to reject a controversial proposed contract for this year, sending negotiators back to the bargaining table.
The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association counted 5,427 ballots cast at 139 work sites, and 77 percent, or 4,188 teachers, voted to reject the agreement. The union represents about 7,600 teachers.
Union president Mike Gandolfo attributed the outcome to an email last week by deputy superintendent Bill Corbett, one of the school district's chief negotiators. Corbett alluded to teacher concerns over certain passages of the contract, but said teachers risked losing a planned raise averaging 4 percent if they voted down the agreement.
Union leaders took that as a threat and blasted Corbett.
Gandolfo, who previously declined to comment about contract details, conceded Thursday he was unaware of many of the language changes that teachers later lashed out over when he signed off on the proposal Oct. 8.
"I might've been a little too trusting at the table," he said. Referring to district negotiators, he added: "They were slick and I was inexperienced."
Gandolfo said he would call the district today to restart bargaining. For now, the district and teachers will default to the current contract, restoring key paragraphs that many teachers didn't want to lose.
Corbett responded to the results in an emailed statement.
"We respect and value our teachers' input," he wrote. "We now look ahead to continued conversation and bargaining with PCTA in a good faith effort to arrive at the best possible contract for teachers in Pinellas County Schools."
A separate contract for the Pinellas Educational Support Professionals Association, which bargains for 2,556 paraprofessionals such as teachers aides, was also up for a ratification vote Thursday. But the outcome was different. Out of 1,545 ballots cast, 88 percent voted to ratify the contract — an unprecedented turnout. Members of PESPA will get an average 4 percent raise.
"We've been fighting with the district for almost five years because of the pay scale," said PESPA president Nelly Henjes.
Bruce Proud, executive director of both unions, said the different outcomes spoke to importance of the contract language to the teachers.
"It's indicative that salary and benefits were similar in nature," he said. "It was the working conditions that the teachers saw as being objectionable."
Despite the prospect of a raise, teachers overwhelmingly sided with their faculty representative council, which recommended a no vote. That council's chair, Christine York-Amstutz, wrote an email Nov. 6 that summarized the council's decision and its key concerns — ranging from the omission of language regarding physical education teachers and guidance counselors to a change in first-year teachers' eligibility for extended leave.
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In addition, the contract made no changes regarding planning time, the top gripe among teachers, she said.
"We were really happy to see that we had such a strong number of teachers that saw that this was important enough to vote on," she said.
Colleen Wright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643. Twitter: @Colleen_Wright.