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Teachers blast salary step decision

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By Steve Waters

In a quick decision Tuesday, the School Board of Levy County passed an addition to the contract between the district and the teachers union that made salary steps for teachers a negotiated item effective July 1, 2011.

Previously, the step increases in pay were automatic. Now they must be negotiated annually starting in 2011. During an Sept. 14 impasse hearing, the board voted unanimously to make the steps negotiable. The decision was officially added to the current contract Tuesday.

Following Tuesday's meeting, Cindy Roach, President of the Levy County Education Association teachers union, said she was disappointed in the addition, adding that the union had voted 294-75 to turn down the contract because of the negotiated salary steps.

The board passed the addition with little discussion Tuesday, something Roach said "sends a strong message."

"To me, that's really disrespectful to our employees, to not even have a discussion about this," Roach said following the meeting.

Superintendent Bob Hastings said that the addition was passed without discussion because both he and Roach signed off on the document, which only applies to the 2009-2010 contract. In addition to the negotiated steps, employees who teach virtual school will receive a $3,000 annual supplement, and teachers who were employed a full year will receive a one-time bonus of $500. 

Other staff will receive a $250 one-time bonus.

Hastings added the vote to reject the contract represented about 40 percent of the district's employees, and that they were actually voting on the 2009-2010 contract, since it was held up due to the impasse. 

The salary steps remained automatic for this fiscal year. Hastings said that the steps were given out to teachers.

Roach said that salary steps cost about $270,000 against the school budget, which she said was a "drop in the bucket" in a $60 million budget. She added that the school district's general fund has increased during the past few years, so the money to pay out steps is there.

Hastings said that the increase in the general fund was mostly due to federal stimulus money. About 70 to 80 teachers' salaries were paid with stimulus money, he said, and the funds are set to expire next year. Congress recently passed a teachers jobs bill, which is expected to bring in $1.13 million to Levy County. Those funds will ease the loss of the stimulus money, Hastings said.

"But if I give raises with that money, I don't have money to soften the blow of losing the (stimulus) funds next year," Hastings said.

Roach said that removing automatic pay steps is hurting teacher morale in the district. With additional administrative duties, an increased focus on standardized tests and less time to do all the work, she said she worries that retaining good teachers will become more difficult, and that students need a consistent, fairly paid professional staff of teachers.

"I've heard comments like 'what are they trying to do, work us to death?' " Roach said. "They just feel unappreciated." 

Hastings said he was sympathetic to the teachers, but the Class Size Amendment and other state mandates have placed the district in a bind. He said since 2002, the district has hired 80 more teachers, 12 additional aides and four guidance counselors, and the district still hasn't fully met the amendment's requirements. Meanwhile, funding from the state has decreased and the district's full-time student enrollment has remained flat.

 "Do they deserve raises, yes they deserve raises," Hastings said. "Insurance costs are going up, everything is going up. But if you don't have money, what can you do?"