Budget Negotiations Hit Impasse In the Miami-Dade Schools

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Efforts to close an $81 million budget shortfall in Florida's Miami-Dade County schools stalled last week when Superintendent Merrett R. Stierheim declared an impasse in negotiations with the local teachers' union.

The announcement came two weeks after teachers, angry with union leadership and the school board, rejected an emergency pay-cut deal brokered by the superintendent and United Teachers of Dade President Pat Tornillo. The proposal, which failed by a vote of 8,767 to 7,909 on Feb. 7, would have saved the 335,700-student district $13 million by making nearly every employee take two days off without pay.

"The superintendent has made clear that cuts that would result in direct impact to schools ... were not acceptable," district spokesman Alberto M. Carvalho said. "When 85 percent of the budget is tied directly to personnel, where do you go to find $81 million?"

The developments in Dade County may be a cautionary tale for other cash-strapped districts considering all-for-one budget-cutting tactics that ask employees to bear a share of the pain. For such an approach to work, observers say, there must already be a strong partnership between the district and its employees.

In Rochester, N.Y., district officials asked the system's 3,600 teachers to give back 10 days' pay this year to help raise the $17 million needed to balance a $410 million budget. Teachers balked at losing the salary, but offered a host of alternative concessions that amounted to $2 million.

That compromise, plus the concessions of other employees' unions and aid owed by the state, has allowed the district to resolve its budget crisis, according to union leaders.

"The labor-management collaboration that has been cultivated over the years here in Rochester has paid off in a time of crisis and survived a time of crisis," said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "Unions have a vested interest in supporting districts in times of crisis, but the key is what form that support should take. There are more palatable options than salary concessions."

'A Lot of Bad History'

The pay-cut plan in Miami-Dade was offered after an earlier $18 million plan that called for employees to work up to five fewer school days was dropped in the face of protests from union members.

But the scaled-back proposal, which would have repaid teachers for the two lost days either with cash at the end of this year or two compensation days next year, failed to sway the union's rank and file— despite Mr. Tornillo's endorsement.

"We knew it was going to be a close vote, but the anger and frustration of our members was very clear," union spokeswoman Annette Katz said. "Our folks do not trust the school board. There's a lot of bad history that predates this vote."

The school district will now request that the state's Public Employees Relations Commission call "special master" proceedings to resolve the impasse.

The union's rejection of the pay-cut plan did not immediately lead to a contract impasse as some observers had expected. As of last week, the UTD president and the superintendent were still negotiating over a next step and both held out the possibility of a new proposal being offered.

"This no vote means that I now have the opportunity to meet with [the superintendent] to discuss all of the options as well as the consequences we face," Mr. Tornillo said in a statement prior to the impasse. "We will return to the bargaining table—and then everything will be up for grabs, including layoffs, curtailment of special programs, increased class size, and the elimination of summer school."

The demise of the pay-cut deal came on the heels of other bad news for the Miami-Dade district. Since December, the cash-reserve projections for the district's $2.2 billion operating budget fell from $22.2 million to $7.5 million.

And last month, Moody's Financial Services downgraded the district's bond rating because of its budget problems and leaner operating margin, which means taxpayers will have to pay higher interest rates when the district borrows money.

Still, the district is not without a plan. On Feb. 13, the board approved a massive restructuring proposal offered by Superintendent Stierheim that is expected to save $1 million by cutting, reorganizing, and downgrading 60 high-level administrative positions.

Other City Districts

Like Miami, scores of other urban districts around the country are feeling the crunch of the economic recession, and some are already looking to teachers and other staff members to help.

To close a budget shortfall in Minneapolis, Superintendent Carol Johnson proposed $30 million in cuts last week that would eliminate 203 classroom teaching positions and 70 full-time administrative jobs. The superintendent also recommended freezing wages for all staff.

The New York City public schools is also facing cuts as the city works to plug its $4 billion budget deficit. Testifying before the state legislature late last month, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told lawmakers that the governor's proposed budget would not include the city's fair share of education funding.

This month, Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy announced that the school system has been asked to cut $354 million, or 7 percent of what it receives from the city's tax-levy funds. Because of the magnitude of the cuts, Mr. Levy said he would work with district administrators to target specific areas for reduction.

"Like every other agency, the school system will do its part to reduce spending," he said in a Feb. 13 statement. "It is important to remember that this is the beginning of what will be a difficult budget process."

Staff Writer John Gehring contributed to this report.

Vol. 21, Issue 24, Page 6

Published in Print: February 27, 2002, as Budget Negotiations Hit Impasse In the Miami-Dade Schools
Related Stories
Web Resources
  • In a Feb. 13, 2002, statement, Pat Tornillo, president of the United Teachers of Dade, charged that "the state’s budget is being balanced on the backs of Florida’s teachers, paraprofessionals, office employees and other school employees."
  • Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Merrett R. Stierheim has posted recommendations to combat the shortfall in the school district's budget.
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