THE STATE OF THE SCHOOLS FROM OCCTA'S PERSPECTIVE

November 16, 2021

STATE OF SCHOOLS

by Wendy L. Doromal, President

At last week’s OCPS State of the Schools event, Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said:

We hold our students and employees to the following values - equity, integrity, inclusion, collaboration, respect and innovation. These values also respect our culture and what we stand for.

Indeed, these values are at the core of a quality education and our students deserve nothing less. Unfortunately, these values are seldom exhibited or upheld in relationships that District leaders and administrators have with the teachers and with the Union that represents them. We must lead by example—we cannot truly hold our students and employees to these values if we do not hold District leaders and administrators to them.

The State of the Schools in Orange County, from the perspective of educators, is regrettably quite different than what was presented by OCPS. From teachers’ perspective, OCPS is in crisis. Here are just a few of the most prominent things teachers are saying about the state of our schools.

OCPS’ teacher shortage speaks to the true state of our schools. It short changes our educators, short changes our students and short changes Florida’s future.

The District has ignored teachers’ pleas to end the practices that have caused an endless stream of resignations and early retirements and the inability to recruit qualified educators. There are currently ten pages of instructional vacancies listed on the OCPS website and every week there are hundreds of unfilled substitute vacancies. Almost 700 teachers left OCPS since the beginning of the school year, and 2,099 resigned or retired last school year up about 22% from the previous school year. The public is ill-served when our teachers are not valued or provided livable wages that attract and retain qualified and dedicated educators. Our students deserve to be in a classroom with a skilled teacher, not a permanent substitute.

The teacher shortage is caused by a shortage of decent pay and benefits. A shortage of transparency and accountability. A shortage of time to complete mandated tasks. A shortage of autonomy. A shortage of deference to teacher voice. A shortage of respect. A shortage of the values that were touted by the Superintendent.

OCPS has treated teachers as disposable, replaceable labor units rather than as valued and respected professionals. Superintendent Jenkins characterized OCPS as a “premier local employer of choice.” Sadly, this has not been the case for some time as OCPS has earned a reputation as an autocratic, top-down district where teachers are not given a seat at the table. Teachers are leaving this District after their stressful and challenging employment experience at OCPS. It is telling that 92% of educators who responded to an OCCTA survey said they did not feel supported by District leaders. Recruitment and retention will remain critical until District leaders take the steps they have been urged to take, but have failed to take, for years.

The District’s decision not to budget for badly needed teacher raises is an affront to the families that keep this school system running.

District leaders acknowledge that teacher pay is too low and that there are very real and devastating inequities for veteran teachers. Yet OCPS refuses to use even one penny of District funds for a base salary increase. This is a choice.

The District consistently over-budgets leaving millions of dollars on the table, it has also consistently underestimated reserves and maintained at least 17% in its reserves fund for years when the statutory requirement is only 3%. The District is choosing to maintain a bloated piggy bank when these extra funds could be used to provide fair and competitive salaries.

Instead of budgeting for raises, the District relies entirely on the Teacher Salary Increase Allocation (TSIA), a new state source of funding created last year primarily to raise the teacher starting salary. It was not intended to be the sole source of funding for educator raises but the District has refused to look to other funding sources since. Instead, the District has offered a cost of living increase of $25—or a total increase of only $0.02 – $0.12 cents an hour depending on evaluation rating.

The District cannot continue to use Band-Aids to stop the hemorrhage of teachers exiting the District. Every year the Union states teachers do not want bonuses – they want raises. Every year the Union reminds the District that no one can get a car loan or secure a home loan with a bonus – banks look at recurring income. Every year the District proposed one-time bonuses and the Union has to fight for real teacher raises.

Teacher pay has not kept up with inflation for over a decade. It used to be that teachers could afford to buy a house on their salary—now they cannot even afford to pay rent without working two jobs. Meanwhile, District leaders have extremely high and competitive professional salaries and a 24% retirement perk.  

On top of that, experienced teachers have had disproportionately lower wages and the District is perpetuating these inequities. The District’s veteran educators earn little more than new teachers: newly hired teachers earn the exact amount as the average 5-year employee; the average salary difference between a new hire and a 15 year veteran teacher is only $6,000; and while the starting salary is now $47,500, the average employee with 30 years of experience is still earning only $67,500. Still, the District has refused to provide longevity supplement to our most experienced educators to begin to address this serious problem. After seeing what is going on with our veteran teachers, a special magistrate has recommended that the District offer a longevity supplement.

District leaders must immediately conduct an independent study of the budget to identify areas of waste and analyze how they could shift funds to provide competitive salaries and address the salary compression that has been hurting its educators for years.

The District’s plan to pass on millions of insurance costs to its employees during a pandemic year will be devastating.

The District claims that it must pass increased health insurance costs on to the employees or the plan would be jeopardized and the self-insured status would be at risk. Although the District’s stabilization reserve is currently over $2 million above what is required by the state, OCPS insists on increasing deductibles, out of pocket maximums, coinsurance, and prescription costs. In the middle of a pandemic, when the District is proposing a cost-of-living adjustment of just $25, it is telling its employees that more money is going to come out of their pocket if they utilize health services.

In the words of a special magistrate appointed by the parties to consider this and other issues:

[I]t is important to note that our Country is just beginning to break free from the negative effects caused by the pandemic. During this time, the record reflects, and there is no dispute, that bargaining unit members put their own health at risk by continuing to perform their teaching duties with students on an in-person basis. In addition, the record reflects and there is no dispute that numerous teachers spend their own money to ensure that their student’s educational and safety needs are met. Moreover, the record reflects that many bargaining unit members are forced to work more than one job in order to meet the needs of their family budget.

To this Magistrate, it would be unconscionable to recommend that bargaining unit members pay more than the status quo for health care. While there may be a time to do so, now is surely not the time.

OCPS cannot tout accountability and transparency when it maintains two sets of accountability and transparency standards—one for educators in the trenches and another for District leaders and administrators.

Superintendent Jenkins declared that the “District is transparent and accountable to stakeholders.” These empty words are shocking given the District’s unwillingness and delay in providing even the most basic information to the public. Teachers had to go to court to get the District to finally provide the names of schools and worksites with positive COVID-19 cases in the middle of this pandemic.

After a Judge agreed that this information had to be provided, the District ultimately created its COVID dashboard. Unfortunately, the dashboard doesn’t consistently disclose actual locations, is not updated in real time, and sometimes even fails to include confirmed cases at all—and when the Union seeks clarifying information to ensure the health and safety of teachers and students, the District complains and delays. The District often takes weeks or months to respond to urgent health and safety questions and has entirely failed to respond to at least twenty-two information requests, some that are over a year old. This is not what transparency looks like.

The District purposefully delays the scheduling of grievances and in response to the Union filing grievances to protect teachers and their contract, District leaders attempt to shame and vilify the Union and educators for utilizing the legal grievance and arbitration process which is a fundamental part of collective bargaining and dispute resolution. This is not what accountability looks like.

While teachers are rightfully expected to adhere to School Board policies and to Florida’s Principles of Professional Conduct, the same is not expected of District managers and administrators. For instance, it took months for action to be taken against a principal after serious allegations of bullying and unethical behavior. (This same principal was later arrested for domestic violence battery.) This is just one example of a persistent double standard that puts teachers and students at risk. While teachers are held to the highest standards, the District looks the other way when it comes to violations of administrators and directors. This is not what we teach our students.  

Teachers are overworked and overwhelmed by additional tasks that are expected of them without any acknowledgement or compensation.

Every year, the District comes up with more tasks to heap on teachers’ already overflowing plates—additional data collection, paperwork, training, and other mandated deliverables. None of the extra work can be accomplished within the already full 7.5 hours workday. That extra work must be completed after hours without pay, cutting into much-needed family and leisure time

Over the last five years CTA has invited District leaders to numerous meetings, summits, and town halls focused on problems related to the intolerable teacher workload. District leaders have attended and promised to support change. Those promises were hollow. There is an obvious disconnect between the OCPS messaging and the reality of what is happening in our schools. OCPS comes up with catchy slogans, like “leading students to success,” and “our promise, your support, our success,” yet leadership is unwilling to give teachers the support they so desperately need to ensure student success.

Throughout the pandemic, teachers put their own health and lives at risk to ensure that learning was not interrupted. They made the impossible possible for every student, every single day. While teachers across the state were given supplements for increased pandemic workload, OCPS teachers were offered nothing. This year, teachers are again required to address pandemic related learning loss and were given even more extra tasks without any acknowledgement or relief. 

Teachers have to fight just to gain back respect and dignity.

Teachers should not have to beg to be treated like professionals. Teachers have had their autonomy stolen from them, are micromanaged, and denied academic freedom. Creative hands-on and real-world lessons that inspire the joy of learning in their students have been replaced with scripted lessons and District-controlled curriculum.

Teachers should not have to beg to be education partners. The District unilaterally designs initiatives and policies without collaborating with the Union, teachers, and others that will be impacted by them. For example, OCPS disregarded student and teacher safety and violated contract language to push a pilot program for evening classes at three high schools. Oddly, the Superintendent highlighted this as an accomplishment in her State of the Schools address even after two of the three schools dropped it and the one remaining has limited participation.

Teachers should not have to beg for health and safety protections during a pandemic. The District has forced them to do so—twice.

Teachers should not have to beg to be heard. Teachers state that their emails to School Board members and District leaders are typically returned with “out of office auto replies” or form responses. Similarly, the District often meets with the Union only to give the impression of collaboration, but rarely engages in meaningful discussion on issues that impact teachers. The bullying and disrespect at the bargaining table and in everyday dealings with the Union shows disregard for every member of the bargaining unit.

The District must change course to correct this unacceptable behavior.

The state of our schools is in the hands of OCPS leaders—our teachers are counting on them to listen and act with the integrity our students deserve.

Teachers are in our schools each day safeguarding the social and academic success of every child. They have the clearest and most immediate perspective of the state of our schools. They know what it will take to protect quality education and promote the best interest of students. Our schools cannot continue to flourish without mutual respect and collaboration with our teachers.

On the other hand, continued domineering and lack of respect will have serious consequences for educators and students. Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Teachers are the heart and soul of every school.  Teachers will always do their jobs selflessly and with passion. That is who teachers are—they are heroes. 

What teachers deserve from their school and District leaders is respect, appreciation, transparency, honesty and fairness. What teachers require is fair and safe working conditions, and to be provided with the essential tools and resources needed to advance student learning for every child. What teachers ask for is a seat at the table and a real voice in decisions that impact their profession, salaries, working conditions and ultimately student success.

We ask that the District put their words in action and actually create the culture and values that they espouse – equity, integrity, inclusion, collaboration, respect and innovation. The state of our schools is at stake.

SPECIAL MAGISTRATE'S DECISION: Download File (Orange County Association Impasse DECISION SM2021-013 DECISION FINAL.pdf)

Read the Unions post-hearing Brief