A glimpse of a new era: Why I am thankful for the impasse resolution

The 15-month impasse war began in one era; and it will end in another. I believe common sense and common purpose, against all odds, have won. And I believe that is a victory worth celebrating, while also recognizing the years of hard work we have ahead of us.

I believe this negotiated deal for 16-17 and 17-18 — and the tortured process that got us here — will establish four very important concepts.

1) Like the 7069 lawsuit, this deal begins to align labor and leadership in Polk against the real enemy — Tallahassee.

2) Getting money and resources in the pocket of the people who do the work is more important than fund balance — or doing the state’s dirty work for it. Dropping the fund balance from 5 percent from 4 percent is the fundamental difference between how the negotiation began and how it ended. That is an undisputed bargaining victory for the people who work for us. If our state wants us to maintain a growing fund balance, it needs to provide the money to do it — or allow us to raise our own. Today, it does neither. Until it does, I will prioritize providing the service I took an oath to provide.

3) Negotiation works best when it is open, collaborative, and productively confrontational. The hearing model works better, much better, than the executive session model. This bargain demonstrates that. PEA and its lawyers very skillfully won the impasse hearing before the special magistrate. With that record in hand, impasse itself could not survive all of us all getting into a room together to hash out what was possible. It took two weeks to get a deal once the sides really began to negotiate. That made a giant impression on me and confirmed what I had long believed during the overall negotiation. When we agree on what options are, the options become pretty easy to pick.

4) Organized teachers and staff are not an enemy – or at least not an enemy your district wants to have any more. They skillfully fought a war for survival as a meaningful political and bargaining force that can influence the direction for this district in the future. And they won it because they had the better arguments, the better cause, and the better representation.

Believe me when I tell you, those were not the positions of the your district apparatus and elected officials for most of this 15-month negotiation. I described this in detail at the time in the essay at this link.

I don’t think that’s as sinister as it sounds. I don’t think it’s much different for most boards and districts across Florida. And I certainly don’t think my Board colleagues and district leadership would agree with my characterization of their point-of-view.

Rather, the incentives and punishments of the Florida Model of education have conditioned almost everyone to think a certain way over time. Everyone just thinks of adversarial, authoritarian relations with teachers and staff as a necessary political and fiscal reality, not a position. Starting with the rebellion against Kathryn LeRoy, we have begun to chip away at that reality in Polk. This deal reflects that in a way I did not think possible when I took office.

But leadership means extending the edges of what’s possible — and converting it into consensus.

If you doubt me, consider the case of masters degree pay. In the end, at the impasse hearing, your School Board voted 7-0 to reject its own long-held position on severely constraining who is eligible to receive that pay. Why? Because it was an absurd position. And absurd positions are no longer tenable. They can’t stand up to open confrontation with the public or stakeholders. And I believe strongly in open, honest confrontation.

The step raise question

What this deal does not do is deliver across the board step/level raises for all teachers. And I’ve read and heard from a number of people — especially senior teachers — expressing unhappiness about that.

But I think many people, myself included, have been confused about how steps can work in the bifurcated performance pay vs. seniority pay world that the Legislature has imposed.

A few years back, Kelli Stargel and state government sought to blackmail veteran teachers into giving up their professional services contracts — commonly known as tenure — and taking on annual contracts. Part of the blackmail was unless you gave up the due process and stability of tenure, you weren’t eligible for performance pay. You would still get evaluated; but a “highly effective” rating would mean nothing for your pay.

Indeed, as I understand the law, no tenured teacher can receive a raise that exceeds the raises given to “highly effective” or “effective” annual contract teachers. In other words, a 20-year teacher with “grandfathered” tenure, who is “highly effective,” cannot, by law, receive a bigger raise than an “effective” annual contract teacher. The implications for step raises are obvious. Any step increase would need to be $1 less, by state law, than the amount an “effective” teacher with an annual contract receives. That is stupid; but it’s what we’ve tolerated from our Legislature.

I want our district to design a pay system that focuses on retention and stability of people who have committed to the profession and Polk County. But I need to understand with clarity the options we have to do that. And I want all of our people to understand with clarity the options. Moreover, we at the district must come up with a clear and honest explanation of the practical truth of our step schedule. If state law renders it meaningless, we can’t ever pretend otherwise to our people.

Demand that our legislators face you and explain

I want us to look forward together to the 18-19 negotiation process by taking a deep public dive together, through a public meeting, on step raises and state law.

To be clear, this would not be a bargaining session. But it would be a level set for what is possible under state law.

And I want us to demand that our legislators attend. Let’s get Kelli Stargel in a room with all of you and district staff and PEA representatives and talk about reality. Let her explain to you her point-of-view and lawmaking concerning pay for experienced teachers. Let the others explain where they stand. There are 15,000 or so public school employees in Polk County — all with family and friend networks. That’s a lot of voters.

And let’s all emerge with a clear understanding of what the rules are — and who is responsible for imposing and enforcing them. And let’s do it before the Legislative session starts on January 9. That means we have to set it up for some time in December or early January.

Will the legislators show up? I don’t know. I bet some of them would. But in any event, we need to make them say “No” publicly. We don’t do that nearly enough.

It is fair to say, I think, that the district over the years has often used complaints about Tallahassee as a shield and excuse — a way to deflect blame. I hope you’ve all seen enough of me by now to know that’s not how I roll.

I use Tallahassee as a battle cry, not an excuse. When I say I want to end Kelli Stargel’s political career, it’s because I want to end her political career — so she can’t do any more damage to our community.

The idea of unifying our staff, leadership, and community in unrelenting pressure on our supposed state representatives and senators is a dream within our grasp.

Of feelings and power

There is a sense among some folks that the district and PEA are asking you to feel a certain way about this outcome. But I’m not asking you to feel anything. I’m not asking for credit. I’m not asking you to think anyone has your best interests at heart.

I’m asking you to honestly assess where we are now versus where we were 15 months ago, when Hunt Berryman and Tim Harris were the dominant forces on the board and you were offered a 5 percent fund balance and nothing else — and told to counter. When 17-18 looked like more of the same.

And I’m asking you to think seriously about power.

It is power that gets you paid. It is power that will improve working conditions. It is power that will end the persecution of veteran teachers — both in Tallahassee and at home. The localized power gains in this deal and process enhance your power. They strengthen my views and position on the board — because, quite honestly, with the exception of the insurance and evaluation language, this deal came together along the rough parameters I envisioned.

In the last 25 years or so, the people of power in our entire society have demonized you through public policy and political language like no other American workforce has ever been demonized. I ran a campaign based on the idea that those people of power are the failures, not you. And you powered us to victory. You showed everyone that you are people of power — if you choose to be.

I believe, 10 years from now, we may look back at this period in American education history as a turning point. One collective bargaining deal in Polk County will not make or break this, obviously. But just as the political dynamics are starting to change all over the country and in Florida, this deal signals changing dynamics in Polk.

The point of this deal is not for you to like me or Jackie Byrd or Hazel Sellers or Marianne Capoziello. Our virtue or generosity or sincerity is irrelevant to your power. And I ran for office, in large part, to empower teachers in this district and Florida to the best extent I can.

I see this deal as a big step forward in that effort here in Polk. And I’m thankful for that. And I’m especially thankful for you.