As labor talks unfolded over the last few months, I knew three basic things. 1) Years of School Board and district leadership inattention, which predate and ended with my election, left a $15 million hole in the District’s self-funded insurance plan. 2) Bus driver and teacher shortages loomed over everything. 3) I was very pleased this year with the constructive collaboration between management and labor in working through these problems.
Fixing insurance now is an emergency, which means costs have to rise for everybody — employees, School Board, and taxpayers. The changes are particularly painful for spouses and children of employees. But the alternative to fixing it now is insolvency — the collapse of the plan. And that’s not an alternative.
Given those stakes, we probably should have pursued a full-throttle, repetitive public campaign to prepare people for the unpleasant insurance changes. But we are not yet a district whose leadership is comfortable talking openly to the public and stakeholders about tough, painful challenges.
As the bargain played out, I actually talked about insurance quite a bit — in meetings, quotes for various media stories, and in many individual conversations with the people of our district. In fact, no stakeholder hid the fact that we had giant insurance problems to face. The School Board and staff addressed it quite openly. Our Finance leaders spoke to at least one union meeting to warn attendees of the difficulties ahead.
But I still knew, as the summer unfolded, that a passive observer of School Board policy might not know what to expect from even a good, productive collective bargaining deal, which I think this is.
I intended to write an article preparing as many people for this as I could. But I got very busy writing about other personnel and cultural issues that I consider hugely important. And negotiations moved very fast. So I didn’t write the insurance piece I intended before the deal came out. I did not do enough, soon enough, to manage expectations. For that, I apologize.
The difference between labor relations and employee relations
When the district staff announced the deal last week, they did so with a sense of accomplishment. And compared with past negotiations, this negotiation does truly stand out for its collaboration, speed, and sense of common purpose. It’s a big step forward in labor relations, which is important, and which I’ll discuss in a moment.
But that doesn’t change the fact that individual employees and their families have to experience the outcome of these deals personally. That’s the difference between labor relations and employee relations.
Bottom line: if you’re a family of five on the District health insurance plan, you may well experience a net decrease in net household income because of cost increases for spouses and dependents on the plan.
Likewise, if you’ve been driving a bus for 10 years, the structure of the new deal means that a new driver may make almost as much per hour as you do. That’s because individual bus drivers have not regularly received level [or step] increase over the years. A 10-year driver may still be on level 3 or 4. In the next deal, I promise you that I will push for targeting veteran drivers, specifically, for increases, like we did this year for veteran teachers.
If you are one of the 13 percent of our plan participants not using Walgreens for pharmacy, the roughly $2 million in savings that our exclusive deal with them creates probably won’t make you happy.
People will talk about their personal experiences
I understand that people experiencing the facts above are unlikely to celebrate them. And when these specific employees hear negotiators and board members praise the deal, it’s quite logical for them to think, in raw language: “Don’t piss on me and tell me its raining.”
I don’t blame anyone for saying that. The district has a tendency to tell our people to clap louder when it’s not necessarily merited. It’s a part of the culture I am trying to change.
You see this cultural tendency in the district’s silly effort in the last few days to communicate to staff that School Board “policy” prevents employees from talking directly to board members. (It doesn’t.) Indeed, the sheer number of people violating this supposed policy to tell me about it would be funny, if the whole thing wasn’t so pointless and unhelpful.
If senior staff wants our people to stop communicating their experiences to their elected representatives, they should probably work on improving the experiences. If they want people to stop coming to me with their problems, they should find a way to make staff as responsive and constituent-oriented as I am — and as new board members will be.
I make no apologies for my reputation as an elected official who cares for and works on behalf of the people who elected me.
And I can say this to all of our people: I will never, ever ask for your gratitude for anything I do as a board member. Rather, I am grateful to you for working for the people of Polk County during a difficult time. I want to do as right by you as I can. All I will ever ask is that you believe what I tell you, which is a trust I know I must continually earn.
In that spirit, I truly believe these deals are worth supporting. Here’s why.
Why I support the deals
We reached collective bargaining deals with both AFSCME (bus drivers and support worker union) and PEA (teacher union) faster and more collaboratively than anyone can remember. Considering our local circumstances, and considering that Florida’s state government has long made a political choice to bleed and hurt the people of public education, I think it’s a pretty good deal.
The agreement provides modest raises structured to help veteran teachers as much as possible under stupid state laws that actively seek to harm veteran teachers. It provides fairly substantial structural pay increases that we hope will help us recruit more bus drivers. We protected the heavily used, low-cost health employee clinics. And we kept the employee insurance premium at zero because it’s one of the few strong recruiting and retention tools we have.
Insurance cost increases have been driven, primarily, by high cost claims from the spouses and children of employees. And that’s where the primary cost sharing burden for employees went. And that sucks for real human beings. Period.
But the School Board, for the first time since 2014, significantly increased the portion of each premium we pay for each person we insure. This prevented the cost increases from being larger. We accomplished this by essentially ignoring the 5 percent fund balance policy the board imposed before I was elected. That is now a policy in name only, largely because I fought hard to change it. If the state ever decides to fund local schools adequately, we can talk about increasing the fund balance. Until then, state officials have shown they will use fund balances as excuses for NOT funding districts.
Ultimately, if PEA and AFSCME members decide not to approve these deals, I honestly have no idea what happens. There are no miracle plans waiting in the wings. If I thought there were, I would advocate for them. I wish I could do better. But this is ultimately one of those times when I have to say: speaking as one board member, I think this is the best I can do with the resources I have. And the answer, if you disagree and have better answers, is to throw me out of office. If you have a better solution, I’d probably vote for you.
Negotiating in the era of intentional scarcity and pain
Lawmakers in America and Florida have created a generation of scarcity for the people of public education in America — and especially in Florida. [The scarcity does not really extend to new technologies and curriculum; because lawmakers make sure there is money to scam and waste there. More on that in a different post.] Without truly realizing it, I believe, the public, through its lawmakers, has chosen to immiserate the experience and financial condition of the people who educate America’s children.
The public is starting to understand what it has allowed its elected officials to do to educators. But reversing it will take a long time.
Thus, even a collaborative good faith deal must come from within the parameters and financial resources set by teacher-hating state officials like Kelli Stargel and Rick Scott.
It’s fitting that the epic and long overdue Time Magazine teacher quality of life covers hit the same week as our insurance changes and PEA deal. You could do the same covers for bus drivers and paras and most of our other employees with the same effect.
Kelli Stargel and our state government provide as little funding as possible and do whatever they can to hurt the people of public education — every year. They drained $160 million from Polk since 2014-2015 and $48 million just this year. See this article for a full explanation. With that money, we could have secured our health plan rather painlessly. Without it, this was the deal we had to do.
But as a district, we did not do enough to describe this deal to the public and stakeholders within the context of the American/Stargelian starvation model of public education.
Then versus now: a genuinely big step forward, in my opinion
When I took office, virtually the entire apparatus of management of the Polk School District — from board to staff leadership to School Board attorney to the hired gun anti-labor lawyers from Tallahassee — was dead set on imposing its will on our people through impasse. Where the insurance plan sat in the contract — not its actual cost structure and stability — was part of that impasse. Beating the union — not securing the plan — was the near unanimous goal of management stakeholders.
For all intents and purposes, this impasse began before I even decided to run. It was announced informally during the summer 2016 campaign when the anti-labor lawyers offered the unions nothing — and told them to counter.
So, when I was elected, it wasn’t just me against the other board members in fighting impasse, on the management side. It was me against the entire senior leadership in the administration building, with a couple of important exceptions. (They know who they are.)
Employees, unions, and I finally forced a deal we could have had from the beginning by lowering the fund balance. If we had agreed to that deal from the beginning, we could have begun to address insurance at least 18 months ago.
Thus, the benefits of the impasse resolution were tempered by the fact that the condition of impasse — which is the absence of productive collaboration — dragged on for at least a year-and-a-half. That dead time imposed a powerful morale opportunity cost. We are still recovering from it.
Responsibility for what could have been
Moreover, if your elected School Board had budgeted for health care inflation and gradually increased its portion of the premium — rather than ignoring it since 2014 — we would not have to jack up costs to taxpayers and employees so precipitously this year. I have insisted that moving forward, we plan in the budget for smaller, regular yearly increases in School Board contribution. The unions have been pushing for that for a long time.
Every long-term incumbent on this board owns both the disastrous impasse and the inattention to insurance. You should do your own fact check about that — and consider it when you vote. Politics is about choices that power makes; and the choices of the recent past have consequences that affect us today.
Check out the video clip below from January 2017 to see me talk about those choices and consequences and who owns them.
In this speech, more than 18 months ago, I called for an end to the impasse right then and there. No board member took me up on it. Kay Fields was the chair at the time. After I talked, she made her own little speech about impasse not being the board’s intent and asserting that the board really does care about its employees. But she didn’t do anything about it; she didn’t join me in trying to end it. Neither did any other board member. They followed the advice of the anti-labor lawyers and the direction of senior staff.
As a result, it took us months and months, and PEA’s skillful victory in the special master hearing, to get a deal we could have had at the time of my speech.
Voters should have that knowledge.
Evidence that leadership has learned
Fast forward to this year’s bargain.
Management got rid of the union-busting lawyers. The financial parameters and realities were agreed to upfront — including making 4 percent fund balance the de facto board policy. With that structure in place, union leaders and district staff simply worked together on which compensation levers to pull and adjust to respond to what the district’s personnel needs are and what’s driving cost in the health plan.
They came to an agreement, under very difficult circumstances, in record time. No one seems to remember the last time we had collective bargaining agreements in place at the beginning of the school year they actually apply to. We’re getting ahead of things for once.
That means we can look forward to next year’s bargain more strategically. And hopefully, we’ll have renewal of the capital sales tax and a new regime in Tallahassee that significantly changes the funding structure for the better.
This is organizational progress, even if it doesn’t exactly feel like it for everyone.
And if senior leadership can learn that honesty, transparency, and collaboration are better in labor negotiations, they can learn that honesty, transparency, and collaboration are better in everything. Perhaps they will see how silly and counterproductive it is to try to prevent 13,000 people, who are constantly under stress, from talking about that stress and demanding help from their elected officials.
I want to make that realization more likely by rewarding good behavior here. So these deals are part of a long game. They are part of making us a better employer. While apologizing that I can’t do more right now, I ask for your continued help in driving us toward that goal.