Some Brevard teachers refuse to work beyond school hours

Teachers upset over raise offer

VIERA, Fla. – When kids return to school Monday, they'll find that some of their teachers are working less than usual.

In protest of the school district's latest pay raise offer, the Brevard County teachers union is encouraging teachers to only work the hours and duties their contract requires, which has become a popular move for teachers across the country unhappy with their salaries, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.

The decision means no more meetings and parent conferences outside normal working hours and no grading papers or making lesson plans at home. Teachers also will no longer come in early or stay late to tutor students for free or use their own money to buy classroom supplies. 

"The message is that we give so much to the district, to the kids of Brevard County, that the district can certainly find a few more dollars to give us," said teachers union President Dan Bennett, whose latest demand of the district would give $1,075 to teachers rated "highly effective" on their evaluations and $800 to teachers rated "effective."

Bennett said "working the contract" will not impact students, but Superintendent Desmond Blackburn is concerned about how residents will perceive teachers' actions. 

"That action to me communicates inappropriately to parents, to the community, to children, that teachers plan on opening the school year with less service, less care than they closed 2017 with," said Blackburn. Already, Blackburn added he's heard from teachers who fear they'll be pressured by the union to participate.

Union leaders, who for months have blitzed school board meetings to speak against the district's raise offers, encouraged Brevard's 4,500 teachers to only work the legal minimum after a series of unsuccessful negotiation talks that started back in September. 

For Vanessa Skipper, an English teacher at Cocoa High School and vice president of the teachers union, working the contract will mean reporting to work at 7:45 a.m., about an hour before students arrive and heading home at 3:45 p.m. — about two hours earlier than she normally leaves. She'll have a 47-minute planning period to grade papers and prepare lesson plans. 

Teachers who double as club sponsors will continue to oversee clubs if they receive a stipend, but beyond that, teachers have been directed by the union to avoid work they're not paid for. 

Brevard teacher raises through the years

4.5% in 2013-14
2.1% in 2014-15
5.1% in 2015-16
1.3% in 2016-17

"It is going to be hard to work the contract because really with everything that is required of us, we can't get it all done in an eight-hour school day," said Skipper, who also teaches journalism and oversees the student newspaper. "I'm an English teacher. If I get 150 essays turned in and I divide my time over my 47-minute planning period, if I spent just a minute on each kid's paper, that would still be well over my 47 minutes.

"If we're going to continue to work outside those eight hours, we'd at least like you to give us a respectable raise that keeps up with inflation," Skipper added.

Teachers in Hillsborough County are currently "working the contract" and have been since November, after their school board moved to freeze teacher pay and hundreds of students organized walkouts from their Tampa high schools. Teachers in Volusia County launched similar campaigns in 2015 and 2016, resulting in a 2.8 percent raise and 4 percent raise those years.

Unions across the country have resorted to working the contract in recent years — in some cases a precursor to teacher strikes, picket lines and student walkouts. 

Much like the school board in Brevard County, Hillsborough leaders say they can't afford to give teachers a raise, and the money needs to go toward other projects

In Brevard, those projects include reopening South Lake Elementary, hiring more literacy coaches and security officers, expanding the gifted program and relaunching a busing program for choice schools, among others.

School districts, including Hillsborough and Brevard, have also blamed the Florida Legislature, which this past session gave more funding to privately run charter schools and forced the district to reduce tax rates despite growing property values. Many school districts, including Brevard, are also heavily indebted. 

Although not from the district's own coffer, Brevard school leaders have also boasted a state-funded $1,200 bonus for "highly effective" teachers and an $800 bonus for "effective" teachers.

Blackburn, a former teacher himself,acknowledged that teachers across the nation should be paid better and valued more. But for the union to say that he and the school board don't care about teachers "is a very, very false narrative," he said, explaining he's worked to scale back testing and evaluations.

At the most recent bargaining meeting between the Brevard teachers union and district staff, chief financial officer Pennie Zuercher put on the table a 1.3 percent raise offer, or $600, for "effective" teachers and a 1.8 percent raise, or $875, to "highly effective" teachers. The offer did not include any extra pay for teachers who took maternity and sick leave or "need improvement."

Zuercher said offering much more would mean layoffs across the district. 

Union Vice President Anthony Colucci said Zuercher merely "rearranged the pot of money," which the union had already rejected before declaring an impasse and elevating negotiations to a special magistrate. 

"At the end of the day, we don’t want this to be something that harms kids, but we do want it to be a message that this is what we do that’s beyond what we’re contractually supposed to and we should be compensated for that," Skipper said.

"Every time we agree to do something for free, we're saying we’re worth less than we are."