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Judge to make recommendations for new teacher contracts


Representatives of the school district and the teachers union quarreled angrily for eight hours over proposed pay raises for teachers, increasing insurance costs, employee grievance procedures and whether the district should continue reimbursing teachers for classes they must take to become recertified every five years.

They found little they could agree upon.

In fact, Attorney Mark Levitt, chief contract negotiator for Indian River County Public Schools, openly mocked and belittled proposals made by representatives of the teachers union.

Liz Cannon, president of the Indian River County Education Association, publicly called the district’s counterproposals “bull ----.”

Now it’s up to Ninth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Tom Young, who listened to both sides make arguments supporting their negotiating positions, to make recommendations he hopes both sides can live with.

The union requested the June 26 special hearing before Young after it became clear the district and union could not break their 15-month contract negotiation impasse without help.

Both sides have until Aug. 5 to submit briefs outlining their positions, Young said. He hopes to release his contract recommendations by Aug. 16. But the process likely won’t end there.

If either side disagrees with a recommendation by Young, they can appeal to the School Board, which will make a final decision on any issues still up for debate.

The most divisive issue is the district’s proposal to give teachers a $600 pay raise, which would become effective upon teacher ratification of the contract. The union’s problem with that offer is that the raise would be for the 2019-20 school year, and the district and union are supposed to be negotiating a contract for the recently ended 2018-19 school year.

“They didn’t negotiate with us for an entire year and now they just want to ignore that year happened,” Cannon said. “That’s bull…., and you can quote me on that.”

Cannon also was not happy with the district’s offer to split the cost of a projected 6.2 percent increase in health insurance rates for the 2019-20 school year. That proposal would require the district to cover half of the increased costs, while teacher insurance premiums would be increased to cover the other half.

But union officials said the district raised teacher insurance rates 30 percent three years ago, and added an extra half hour to their workday, which negated the $900 pay raise they received at the time.

The district has previously agreed to contribute $1.56 million to the employee health insurance fund for 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years – which it now is trying to renege on, Cannon said.

Instead of contributing $1.56 million to the insurance fund, Levitt, an attorney from Winter Park, Florida, said the district is proposing to give each teacher a $643 “bonus” check to spend as they please.

If that sounds enticing, the proposed bonus money would be subject to taxes, resulting in less money for employees, and likely be negated by the upcoming insurance rate increase, Cannon noted.

Young, who has been working as a mediator between unions and school districts for more than 20 years, knew immediately he was facing a difficult challenge at the Indian River hearing.

He halted the hearing within minutes and ordered already bickering negotiation representatives to huddle and narrow the list of 29 issues they initially disagreed on when they arrived.

When the two sides dragged their feet on completing their task, Young threatened, “I will keep you hear until midnight, if I have to.”

Eventually both sides agreed to narrow their list of disagreements to nine items.

That didn’t mean either side warmed up to each other.

Cannon and union business agent Frank Peterman III hammered away at the school district’s team, who appeared disorganized and unprepared during the hearing.

Peterman on several occasions pointed out that statistics Levitt’s team was using to support their arguments were incorrect or outdated. Leavitt and Michelle Olk, who was hired two months ago as the district’s director of labor relations, often couldn’t cite the sources they used to accumulate their data.

Leavitt is the fourth person in the past 15 months who has been asked to represent the district in its negotiations with teachers.

He and Olk were frequently unable to answer questions about current school operations or laws governing school districts. They had to ask for several breaks to leave the hearing to try and find answers to questions from the judge and union.