Impasse, part 2: the logical outcome of a broken School Board culture

Your Polk School District declared a labor impasse with our teachers a week ago today. I was notified by a press release from the district sent at 3:52 p.m. I can't speak for any other board members; but I know I was given no timeline for when to expect this to happen and no heads-up before it happened. No one with the district explained the impasse process to me. So I've had to figure it out myself.

The School Board has held one 30-minute closed collective bargaining negotiating session since my swearing-in. School Board Attorney Wes Bridges admonished us not to share anything said in the meeting. The law seems a bit more ambiguous. Here's how the 2016 Government-in-the-Sunshine manual puts it, citing a State Attorney General's report:

Section 447.605(1), F.S. does not directly address the dissemination of information that may be obtained at the closed meeting, but there is clear legislative intent that matters discussed during such meetings are not to be open to public disclosure.

In any event, I do think I am constrained from saying anything that I hear in a closed negotiating session. So what I'm about to write comes entirely from my observations and conversations outside the formal closed session. Here are three key points:

1. Your School District and its paid legal representatives have not remotely sought to negotiate or meaningfully talk with your teachers and district staff. When our highly-paid Tallahassee labor lawyer writes, "We are willing to continue to work toward a resolution of our differences in contract negotiations," he is not telling the truth. "We" are not. Billy Townsend is. But "we" are not.

At the bottom of this post, you'll see the district's press release and the core content of our lawyer's letter. Worth a comparison.

2. When your School District writes in its press release, "the primary dispute is over wages," it is not telling the truth.

Indeed, if one looks at the letter our high-priced Tallahassee labor lawyer wrote to PEA and AFSCME, salary is just one of four key issues -- and not even the first cited. For the money we're paying him, you'd think it might have occurred to him to more closely align his letter and our PR statement. The district also wants major changes to how we negotiate teacher transfer rules, teacher evaluation, and health insurance. You can rest assured that none of those are likely to accrue to the value or interest of individual teachers.

If this were actually about money, I feel certain that I could sit down in a room with Mike Perrone and Jason Pitts on the district finance side and union representatives on the other and figure out a menu of potential solutions. I have found all of these people reasonable.

(As an aside, I find Jason more than reasonable. I find him morally committed and willing to suffer for his job. We need more of that from our administrators. I regret deeply that he's been in the middle of the Class Wallet issue. He's taken a lot of the heat from teachers because he's been willing to stand up and take it. He said something ill-advised in the course of all this. But I've said ill-advised things, too. I had a role in focusing teacher attention and criticism on Jason. I would like to have a role in calling a truce. If we're going to reform the culture at the District, I believe Jason's good faith and professional intensity will be very helpful. And I certainly hope that praising him in public does not harm him.)

We have money for potential salary increases -- although perhaps very small. All sides have legitimate concerns and interests in how to divvy it up. Points-of-view differ on what's really recurring money and what isn't. There are differing positions on the size of the fund balance we need to keep to be financially prudent. All are legitimate points of discussion, debate, and choice. A real negotiation followed by open, transparent votes could find an answer.

But this impasse is entirely a power play. I suspect the decision to pursue impasse was made way back in the summer -- or even before -- by an entirely different board. I also suspect it relates to Gary Chartrand and the Board of Education and how they muscled the district into seizing local control of schools and transferring teachers based on fraudulent VAM. In part 3 of this, I'll tell you why I think that. And I'll examine the politics of impasse more closely.

For now, I feel a bit like I'm standing on the shore of a rushing river, watching debris and honesty hurl past me on the rapids. The river wants it that way.

3. Until your School Board establishes some meaningful culture of oversight, your district has no business taking out its failings on the people in the schools and buses who do the real work every day.

I can't talk to you about what happens in closed negotiating sessions. But I have no such constraints in closed legal discussions. The same day that we had our closed negotiating meeting, we learned about the full legal carnage of the Acceleration Academy. It was one of those scam schools nominally designed to help kids who have fallen behind catch up and graduate. It targets and profits from vulnerable, desperate kids.

The bottom line is this: We paid the owner of Acceleration Academy $3.6 million to produce 34 diplomas. And they are suing us for more.

I'm sure you'll be shocked, shocked to learn that one of the owners of Acceleration Academy is Joey Wise, former superintendent of Jacksonville schools. Before Jacksonville fired him in 2007, he recruited Kathryn LeRoy to Jacksonville from Miami. Also, for giggles, go google "Joey Wise" + "Chicago".

This is why we can't have nice things. And no one at the district has even said, "I'm sorry" to you. Well, I'll say it, even though I had nothing to do with it. I'm sorry. I'm going to make us do better -- or die trying.

Much more to come on this in the future. But for now, you might find yourself asking, "Who should be protecting me, as a taxpayer, from this type of bad faith? Is it the School Board? Is it the legal team? Is it top administrators? Is it procurement? Who?"

I have to tell you, I'm on the School Board, and I don't know. But I'm working hard to find out. In this mission, I have one great advantage no one in Polk County has ever had. I'm a reporter by nature and skill and professional background. And I have an audience. I am now the beat writer for the Polk School District while serving on the Polk School Board. That gives me access to everything I want, whenever I want it. And I have the will to share it publicly. Basically, I'm only limited by time. I want my readers to know that. And I want my fellow board members and district personnel to know that.

That is the best, most immediate way for me to provide oversight, transparency, and accountability when a majority of my board colleagues have no real interest in oversight, transparency, and accountability. I will illustrate this in a future post about our new testing and data platform.

So expect this to get worse before it gets better.

You may read some of the stuff I write and want to smash your phone or iPad or laptop in rage and despair. Believe me, I sometimes want to smash my laptop, and I'm writing it. Please don't do that. Please stay with me. Please don't opt out.

My family and I opted in to a frontal assault on the culture on display in this impasse decision. Many, many teachers and staff who do the work every day opted in to frontal assault on this culture. We are done with the failures at the top getting taken out on the people who do the hard work.

We're fighting for a viable, humane, excellent district. Help us. Sweat the details. Question with good faith what you're told by people with important titles. Please, please, please think about running in 2018. Tim Harris, Hazel Sellers, and Kay Fields are all happy with the current district culture. Ask them. After all, it's their culture. They built it in their combined 38 years on the board. I would expect them to defend it. Every indication I have is that they want impasse fervently. They are still fighting the battles of 2002 and 2006, when they were elected. Those battles, in a teacher shortage, Opt-Out, Common Core world, are as dated and out-of touch as Max Headroom.

My supporters and I have a different vision -- one of collaboration, common purpose, owning and learning from mistakes, and constructive oversight. To achieve my vision and that of the 60 percent of Polk County who voted for me, we're going to need to replace Harris, Sellers, and Fields. It's not personal. It's just a simple fact.

This will be my message to the teachers and parents I understand are rallying at our next meeting. I will also seek to undermine impasse however I can and pressure us back toward negotiation. I have no idea if I'll be successful. But I know I'm obligated to try.

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Polk County School District Declares Impasse in Collective Bargaining Negotiations

The Polk County School District declared an impasse today in the collective bargaining negotiations with its two unions: the Polk Education Association (PEA) and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2227. Polk County Public Schools negotiated in good faith with the PEA beginning in July 2016 and with AFSCME beginning in May 2016 and reached an agreement on many issues but has now notified Florida’s Public Employees Relations Commission of the impasse. The District looks forward to a prompt resolution of all of the unresolved issues. The issues to be decided are: Transfers and Changes in Assignment (PEA only), 2016-2017 Salary/Compensation, Teacher Evaluation (PEA only) and 2017 Health Insurance. The primary dispute is over wages. The PEA seeks wage increases of approximately 3.41 percent that would add more than $10 million in recurring costs to the District’s budget. In April 2015, wages and benefits for the PEA unit increased by $13 million. In May 2016, wages and benefits increased by more than $12 million retroactive to July 1, 2015. Similarly, AFSCME seeks a 2.5 percent wage increase, which would add just under $3 million to the District’s recurring budget. Previously, AFSCME Local 2227 bargaining unit members received wage and benefits increases in 2014 of more than $1.5 million and just under $3 million in 2015. The District rejected both wage proposals. Although the School District of Polk County is the eighth-largest in the State of Florida by student enrollment, it ranks 64th out of 67 by per-student funding. Despite the low ranking in state funding per student, in 2015-2016 Polk County Public Schools had the second highest starting teacher salary in the State of Florida at $40,672. Also, according to the Florida Department of Education, Polk ranks 65th of 67 for spending on administration. We look forward to a resolution of this impasse in our negotiations in a manner that will be fiscally responsible and in the best interests of the entire community.

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This is most of the letter from Michael Mattimore, our anti-teacher/staff lawyer. I couldn't quite fit all of it on a single screen capture. The only substantive sentence left out is from the last paragraph: "If requested, we will participate in a mediation prior to impasse proceedings." I expect mediation to happen. I expect nothing to come of it, because I think the board -- with the exception of me -- wants nothing to come of it. I would love to be wrong.

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