Magistrate sides with union, says plenty in reserves to pay for Brevard teacher raises

 eu.floridatoday.com  05/17/2019 19:20:27  3  Caroline Glenn

In hopes of settling a months-long dispute over teacher salaries, special magistrate Tom Young sided with the Brevard County teachers union in a report released Friday recommending the School Board use reserves to pay for raises.�

Young, who heard from the district's chief financial officer and union leaders at a meeting last month, said the school district has "sufficient funds" in its reserves�to give highly effective teachers the $2,300 raises and effective teachers the $1,725 raises the union has asked for.

Superintendent Mark Mullins must now accept or reject Youngs recommendation. If he rejects it, the School Board must hold an impasse meeting where district staff explain their reasoning.�

Mullins said: We agree with the magistrate and teachers�union that our professional educators deserve competitive pay.�We still believe, given our current funding situation, that our position provided the best balance of pay increases and fiscal responsibility.� Paying recurring raises with non-recurring dollars is not sustainable. However, we will carefully review the magistrates recommendation while deciding the districts next step.

The district previously had offered $770 for teachers�rated�highly effective on their annual evaluations and $540 for teachers rated effective, as well as a one-time $1,000 bonus for all teachers.�

The union and district have been at impasse since December.�

More on teacher pay:

  • 'Silent strike': 625 teachers have walked away from Brevard schools
  • Teachers union says budget reserves should be used for raises
  • Teachers hold walk-in to bring attention to 'funding crisis' in Florida schools

At the April 23 meeting, the union said teachers in Brevard are paid much less than teachers in comparable districts, while the district argued that Brevard ranks high among other counties for teacher pay.

Ultimately, Young said the union's evidence was more "compelling." The union brought forward data from the Florida Department of Education on�median and starting salaries and salaries of teachers with five, 10 and 15 years experience; whereas, the district used data on average salaries, highest salaries and other information�Zuercher got from staff in other districts.�

The union and Young agreed that the union's claims were "supported by documentation from the relevant collective bargaining agreements and official statistics of the Florida Department of Education rather than hearsay."

Young said that the district's offer of $770 "would do nothing to remedy the current instructional salary gap between BPS and comparable districts and would only cause BPS to fall farther behind."

He also recommended the district fulfill the union's request to increase the supplement for special education teachers from $165 to $1,000.

Union president Anthony Colucci and vice president Vanessa Skipper said they hope�the district will�"do the right thing" and accept Young's recommendation.

"We hope that the School Board of Brevard County will take to heart that a neutral party understood their teachers' plight," said Skipper.�

Brevard School Board Chair Tina Descovich said the magistrate's opinion carries a lot of weight with her but questioned the idea of using reserves.�

"That doesnt even make sense," she said. "Just because�the state says you can't go below 3%�or you will be in trouble, it doesnt mean it's fiscally responsible to not maintain a higher balance�in case catastrophe occurs."

Descovich said she was unsure�how she would vote on the issue if it comes before the board, but said, "I would lean toward cutting existing programs before�I would want to dip into reserves."

The school district's chief financial officer, Pennie Zuercher, argued that using money from reserves�would jeopardize the district's long-term financial stability.

She provided a report from HBEC Group, Inc., a financial expert the district hired�to evaluate its budget, that said it was not appropriate to use reserves to pay for recurring raises.

"To draw down fund balances for an increase in employee compensation for one year begs the question from where will the revenue for the second, third and other future years of the salary package come?" according to an excerpt from the report.�

However, Young said there is about $44 million in those reserves that could easily be repurposed and would have a "positive impact on the interest and welfare of the children and the public" if used for employee salaries.�

The union previously has said that the district's reserves are much higher than the required 3%. In fact, the district's contingencies are at almost 9% and projected to reach nearly $54 million next year.

Young concluded that keeping so much money in reserves "results in the underutilization of funds ... that are intended to be applied toward the education of children."�He added that the district's conservative financial practices to sustain�so high a fund balance actually results in recurring dollars.

"Almost $3.5 million�could be reallocated toward�raising teacher salaries without falling below the 3% threshold," Young said.�

Young said there was no clear reason to maintain such high contingencies,�"beyond Ms. Zuerchers own vague assertions that the funds would be required in this or future years."

"...There are always funds available to provide for increases such as the ones proposed by BFT. It is a question of priorities...of choices," Young states in the report. "It would be feasible to fund the BFT proposals�if the School Board changed its priorities,�i.e., if it made different 'choices.'"

Caroline Glenn is the Education Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact her�at caglenn@floridatoday.com or 321-576-5933, and�follow her on Twitter @bycarolineglenn and like "Education at Florida Today" on Facebook.

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COMING SUNDAY: In the last three years, 625 teachers have walked away from Brevard Public Schools, for other counties, for charter schools and private schools and for private industries. The teachers union calls�it the "silent strike."

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