PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Teachers who rallied outside the St. Lucie County School Board Offices say they have won a "psychological victory" with the change of venue for negotiations between the Classroom Teachers Association (CTA) Classified Unit, and the school board.
The Classroom Teachers Association is asking for a 3.1% pay raise for all staff as well as a 2% annually-recurring salary increase.
The change comes after more than 100 teachers and community supporters wearing red first rallied with signs on Okeechobee Road in Fort Pierce, then packed the school board's boardroom. The overflow caused concerns about the fire code, and forced a venue change.
Vicki Rodriguez, Vice President of the CTA, said this negotiation process is long overdue.
"For too long, we've sat by and let things happen to us," said Rodriguez.. "What you see here is a group of people who have had enough, and they're not going to take it anymore. Just that sense of frustration is palpable right now with teachers and educators across the nation. Teachers have a lot going on, but they're here, and that really means that we're going somewhere."
Susan Ranew, Assistant Superintendent of St. Lucie County Schools, said Thursday's negotiating session was the third one since June. "The last time we met, the district provided a proposal to the bargaining unit," she said. "Today the bargaining unit will provide a counter-proposal back to us. We'll continue the negotiating process until we come to an agreement."
"Normally, in our school district, we negotiate collaboratively, and in the bargaining unit's contract, they have the right to provide notice that they want to negotiate collectively," she said. "They did that in the spring, that they wanted to bargain collectively, compensation and benefits for the school year, so they initiated that process," said Ranew.
There were tense moments before the original negotiation session was to begin, when the hundreds of teachers could not fit inside the school board boardroom. After an announcement that people would have to leave the boardroom, teachers began chanting, "We won't go, we won't go!"
Christine Hill, Chief Negotiator for the CTA, said she announced to the crowd inside the boardroom that the Fort Pierce Police Department were making an arrest, because that was what she had been told. Police confirmed that no arrests were made, but Hill said she was dealing with the crowd. "I was shocked," said Hill. "I didn't know what was going out because we were inside, and then finally people in the hallway had quieted down."
The negotiation session will be pushed back until next Tuesday at Fort Pierce Central High School.
"It was really exciting, we haven't seen that kind of support in a long time," Hill said, of the amount of teachers who turned out wearing red and waving signs. "We've been in collaborative bargaining, things are agreed upon in committee, and a lot of people are in those kind of decision-making areas, but when we couldn't come to an agreement on salary, then we went to collective, so people aren't really used to it. It's been years since we've done this."
Joe Randazzo, a new media teacher at Treasure Coast High School, said he participated in the rally because he is angry. "I'm out here today because it's absolutely ridiculous that teachers with a master's degree and ten years of experience, raising children, qualify for a free lunch," he said. "That's how bad they have lost their buying power. As a taxpayer in this county, I find that abhorrent."
"We want people to know that we are very hardworking," he continued. "Everybody seems to think we're glorified babysitters, but that's just not the case. We do a tremendous job of taking these young people, molding their minds that is unequaled anywhere. Yet we can't get a raise for seven years. We can't afford to be teachers anymore, and we're losing good teachers every year."
Ranew said finances are a challenge for the school district.
"Funding is an issue for all school districts in the state of Florida," she explained. "By the end of the 2013-2014 school year, if we don't do something to increase our revenue, we will be facing a $17 million dollar deficit, so we have got to do something to get control of our costs."
"I'm hoping that our folks get a good wage, get the respect that they deserve, get back what they've lost over the last five years and that the school board will see that they can't continue to balance the budget on the backs of the teachers," said Rodriguez. "We've had gains in test scores, markers of success, and our folks have not seen the financial benefit of that. It's been a good thing for the district, and our teachers are the ones that have made that happen."