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Despite months of bargaining, negotiations between the Volusia County School Board and the teachers union are at a standstill.

Differences over compensation, health insurance, the length of the elementary school day, and even what kind of clothes teachers should wear have had the two sides at loggerheads since work on a new contract for teachers began in April. 

The disputes echo similar contention during the district/union negotiations in 2015-16, which ended in an impasse, with the two sides eventually agreeing to a two-year settlement. 

“We’re kind of in limbo right now, I guess you could say,” Andrew Spar, president of the Volusia United Educators union, said June 12.

“It has not been a good round of negotiations. We feel like the district has taken an approach which is counterproductive,” Spar said. “They don’t want to work through issues and have real discussions. They’d rather just say, ‘Here’s our proposal; take it or leave it.’”

At the two sides’ last session May 30, the district offer included a 1-percent raise and an $800 bonus for the 2018-19 school year, with 2-percent raises each year in 2019-20 and 2020-21, according to school-district spokeswoman Nancy Wait. 

The proposed settlement also included continuing a subsidy of dental insurance, and a 6-percent increase in supplemental pay for teachers who take on extra work, such as advising school clubs and organizations. 

However, the proposal also included a longer day for elementary school teachers, from 7 hours to 7.5 hours, to recover teaching time lost to state-mandated recess.

And, the offer provided that school principals could enforce dress standards on teachers — an issue the union initially opposed, Spar said, but one he thinks is close to being settled.

The union, on the other hand, wants a 2-percent pay increase for 2018-19, with a 3-percent raise for each of the next two years. Spar said the union is willing to forgo the district’s proposed bonus, and said his group would like to see the money spent on increased pay and benefits in general.

Spar said VUE would also like the district to restructure how increases in health-insurance costs are handled, so teachers don’t have to completely absorb increases in the rates negotiated by the district with insurance carriers.

“We hear from the School Board that they understand the challenges teachers and staff face, and yet we get to the table and the language of the proposals looks punitive,” Spar added.

The cost of health insurance was one of the major disputes during the 2015-16 negotiations. At the time, teachers had their choice of five insurance plans for $20 per month.

In the face of rising costs, however, the district capped the subsidy it would pay for health insurance at $500 per month per employee, although it agreed to offer one health-insurance plan at no cost.

The teachers union decried the move, saying the increased costs they’d have to bear would effectively wipe out any raises they’d receive. 

In the final settlement for the 2015-18 contract, the subsidy was raised to $531.

Both sides agree the Florida Legislature is partly to blame for the district’s funding woes. 

Legislators provided only a 0.01-percent increase in the base student allocation for 2018-19, district spokeswoman Wait said. 

However, Spar maintains the district has failed in its commitment to hold steady the amount it spends overall on salary and benefits.

“There is not a doubt in our mind that the Legislature has failed once again to adequately fund our schools,” Spar said. “What we are saying is we want our district to keep its commitment, which is to maintain spending on salary and benefits.”

From last year to this year, he said, the district has proposed decreasing by 2 percent, or around $9.5 million, the amount of its budget spent overall on salaries and benefits.

As of June 13, there were no further bargaining sessions set between the teachers union and Volusia County Schools, and the future of negotiations remained unclear.

Spar is pessimistic about whether negotiations are headed to an impasse.

“I would hope that it’s not, but I believe that’s the district’s intent,” he said.

The two sides can continue negotiating if an impasse is declared, but they can also bring in a mediator or a special magistrate to make recommendations. 

If either side rejects the recommendations of the mediator or magistrate, the School Board can hold an impasse hearing and ultimately unilaterally impose its own terms on the teachers union.

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