OCEA president ‘insulted’ by school district’s offer

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County Education Association (OCEA) president Lisa Harwas addressed the Okeechobee County School Board at their monthly meeting on Dec. 12 in regards to an impasse the OCEA has declared with the Okeechobee County School District.

The OCEA, which represents teachers and other support personnel, declared the impasse because the Okeechobee County School District didn’t offer a raise for its teachers, instead only offering a guarantee of a bonus using funding provided by the Florida State Legislature. The school district offered to fund the bonus for 10 percent of employees not covered by the state bonus.

“Teachers work long hours,” Mrs. Harwas said, “before and after school, weekends and even holidays, struggling with a workload that has no end in sight. When presented with the knowledge that the district has a 9 percent fund balance, you can imagine how insulted our bargaining unit felt when the district offered their counter of no raise but instead a small bonus, a bonus that will be gone after a year, while our workload doesn’t go away.”

The state of Florida requires school districts keep 3 percent of the annual budget in reserves; the Okeechobee County School Board’s policy has been to keep 5 percent in reserve. Okeechobee County Schools Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services, Renee Geeting, has said that while the school district has reserve funds, expenses have exceeded revenues for the past few years.

“We do have higher than 5 percent in reserve,” Mrs. Geeting said, “but if we continue to expend $2 million more than revenues. There will be a point where reserves will be exhausted.”

In the past year, other South Florida school districts have offered raises to their teachers.

In Palm Beach County, teachers will get an average 3.2 percent raise, retroactive to July 1, under an agreement reached by the school district and Classroom Teachers Association negotiators on Nov. 30.

In an agreement reached earlier this year, the Broward County school district offered its teachers a raise of 4 percent or more, while also agreeing to form a committee to find ways to decrease teacher workload.

“If we want to attract and retain quality teachers,” Mrs. Harwas said, “we need to be competitive with other districts, especially those on the coast, where teachers are most interested in relocating.”

Nationwide, teacher shortages have become a growing problem. A report produced in 2016 by the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute said that between 2009 and 2014 teacher education enrollment dropped 35 percent from 691,000 to 451,000.

Along with the drop in enrollment there are high levels of turnover, with nearly 8 percent of the teaching workforce leaving every year, the majority leaving before retirement age.

“OCEA believes we need to keep effective teachers teaching in Okeechobee,” said Mrs. Hawas. “A revolving door of school teachers, coming and going, is not in the best interest of our students. Teachers will leave and go to surrounding counties where they feel respected with reasonable pay raises and better working conditions.”

In a press release issued Thursday, Graham Picklesimer, who represents OCEA in bargaining, said he was unhappy with the district’s position in negotiations.

“Employees are at a breaking point,” he said. “The district’s proposals equal more work for teachers but not more pay.”

A special magistrate will hear from OCEA and the school district on Friday, at 9 a.m. at the Okeechobee County School District office.

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