Okeechobee School District and teachers union at odds over pay dispute

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County School District and the Okeechobee County Education Association (OCEA) have scheduled a legislative hearing with the Okeechobee County School Board on April 9 to decide the contract negotiations that came to an impasse on Oct. 30.

The two sides met with a special magistrate on Dec. 15 to hear recommendations on solving the dispute. But both parties only accepted one of the magistrates recommendations, which was paying all teachers their “Best and Brightest” bonuses.

The Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program awards bonuses of $800 to $7,200 to classroom instructors rated “highly effective” who also earned college admissions test scores in the top 20 percent whenever they took the ACT or SAT. The bonus has been controversial since the Florida Legislature created it in 2015, as many teachers argued it made no sense to give bonuses based partly on scores of exams they took when they were in high school.

The issues remaining undecided are salaries and job security for employees working for the school district. Currently, the school district is offering no raises and are denying any language that would give annual contract teachers job security. The district is also proposing to reduce the probationary period for classified employees such as bus drivers and custodians from three years to two years.

OCEA is proposing an average raise of 2.7 percent for all employees and has accepted the new annual contract language offered by the special magistrate. The new measures would require principals to give a reason why they are letting go of an annual contract teacher, which would be documented and shared with the superintendent. Currently, annual contract teachers can be let go without reason at the end of the school year.

Finally, OCEA is proposing only a one-year probationary period for classified employees.

OCEA president Lisa Hawas believes a raise is needed to keep teachers in Okeechobee.

“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.”

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.

Graham Picklesimer, a collective bargaining specialist for the Florida Education Association was happy with recommendations of the special magistrate.

“We thought the special magistrate came up with some very good ideas for how to meet our needs,” said Mr. Picklesiemer. “It’s very disappointing that the district feels teachers don’t even deserve to know why they are no longer wanted. We hope the School Board sees things differently.”

The legislative hearing is set for April 9 at 4 p.m. in the School Board office, 700 S.W. Second Ave. The hearing is open to the public.

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