Collier teachers’ union rejects school district’s proposals to decrease benefits

— If Collier County teachers were grading the Collier County School District on its proposals to save the district money, the school district would fail.

The Collier County Education Association, which represents 80 percent of the district’s teachers, rejected the district’s proposals to not pay teachers their step increment for the 2009-10 school year while asking them to pay 10 percent of their health care premiums Monday evening.

“The step - you know how we feel. We are prepared to go to impasse over this,” said Cal Boggess, president of the CCEA and lead negotiator for the union. “I still find it unbelievable that (the health care) is coming to the forefront at this time.”

The proposals were the same the district presented to the Collier County School Board at a budget workshop last week. Chief Operations Officer Michele LaBute, who is the lead negotiator for the district, said the proposals were presented to the board last week because the district is still operating without a budget from the Legislature and the district needed to present the board with cost saving ideas for the proposed budgets from the House and Senate.

The Collier County School District met with every union but the teachers’ union last week before the budget workshop to discuss the cuts before they took them to the board.

The CCEA declined. Boggess said Monday that he felt it was not proper to attend the meeting before negotiations had begun.

“We shouldn’t have been there until we were negotiating,” he said.

The meeting between the union’s and the district’s negotiating teams was the first as the two sides work to draft the teachers’ contract for 2009-10 through 2011-12. Though the purpose of the meeting was to develop organization and ground rules for the negotiations process, district administrators presented nine changes to the contract for union negotiators to consider.

The union rejected two and will consider the other proposals before giving the district a response, Boggess said.

Some of the changes were minor, cleaning up language referring to the block schedule at the high school, which the district will not have next year; and removing employee titles that are not used anymore.

The five biggest changes affecting most teachers, though, were the ones that the district proposed during the budget workshop last Thursday. , Collier officials are recommending about $14 million in budget reductions for the 2009-10 school year. Those include:

■ Eliminating health, life and Flex Care benefits for employees considered to work less than 75 percent of a full-time employee, which would affect about 100 employees - including some union members - at a cost savings of $654,640;

■ Asking all employees to pay 10 percent of their health-care premiums — or $614 per person per year. Employees will pay 20 percent if they smoke;

■ Reducing the tuition reimbursement for one year at a cost savings of $250,000;

■ Cutting the stipend for teacher in-services at a cost savings of $269,000; and

■ Not awarding step increases for 2009-10, but giving employees a bonus. Eliminating the step increase would save $5.4 million for the 2009-10 school year, but should the district negotiate a 2 percent bonus with the unions, the cost would be neutral. LaBute said the point was that the district would save itself from a recurring cost because the bonus would be for the 2009-10 school year only.

LaBute said that once the district had a budget from the Legislature, the idea was to come to the teachers with a bonus. The reason, she said, was stability.

“Giving employees a step is a recurring cost. Our funding right now is very unstable. We have no idea what will happen next year or the year after,” she said. “Our greatest fear is that we would give employees a step and we would have to go back and talk about furloughs or pay cuts. We are trying to continue to keep ourselves from going backwards.”

She added that Collier County has the third-highest average teacher salary in the state. Only Sarasota and Monroe counties pay their teachers, on average, more than Collier.

Boggess told LaBute that many of the district’s cuts, including schedules at the middle and high school, have come on the backs of employees. He said other districts facing cuts are doing so because they gave employees large raises.

LaBute said the step increase commits the district to $5.4 million in funding it might not have in 2010-11.

“The step is something we have committed to our people,” said Boggess. “A couple of years ago, when we got a 6 percent increase. I thought that was an unbelievable deal. But because it didn’t include a step increase, our people did not accept it. They saw it as a slap in the face. ...This here is the hail storm.”

Union officials also balked at a proposal by the district to require employees to pay 10 percent of their health care premiums, or 20 percent if they use any tobacco products of any kind.

LaBute said the intent of the proposal was not to put more money into the insurance plan, but to free up operational dollars in the district’s budget that were committed to insurance costs. That would be about $4 million, she said.

Von Jeffers, the former president of CCEA and a member of the union’s negotiating team, said the district’s health insurance committee recommended that the district offer employees health screenings to find problems with employees’ health early on.

“As far as premiums, the committee decided that now is not the best time for that,” he said.

District officials disagreed.

Employees would be allowed to opt out of health insurance if they did not want to pay premiums, district officials said.

LaBute told the union officials that the district was still looking at cost-saving suggestions that the union had provided to the district. The cuts, however, are still on the table.

“These will keep us stable. We have not given out 578 pink slips,” LaBute said referring to steps taken by the Lee County School District. “We have not cut salaries. We are talking about trying to stay stable.

“These are the hardest times we have encountered in our lives. Hopefully, they will not last for longer than two or three years.”

The district and the union negotiating teams will meet again at 4:30 p.m. Monday, May 4, at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Administrative Center, 5775 Osceola Drive. Both sides are expected to present their proposals for changes within the entire contract.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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