SEBRING — By a 3-2 tally, The School Board of Highlands County voted down the support personnel union contract that had been ratified by the employees by an 83.4 “yes” vote.

The board took the unprecedented move after employees spoke of the inequities in the contract, including a long-time provision that benefits workers who left the employment of the district and then returned. Due to the circumstances of the lean years with no step increases, the returning employees receive a pay boost above those who had remained with the district.

District Office support employee Marcia Percy noted there was no non-instructional union representation at the School Board meeting.

The union uses the scare tactic that if the contract isn’t passed and it goes back to negotiations then the employees may not get anything, she said. That tactic worked [in the recent vote].

For the past 19 years the School Board salary schedule has all the positions listed according to their pay level, Percy said. Now with these changes, those positions are scrambled.

What needs work is the six years without a step increase, which would help every employee in whatever job they do, she said.

During the downturn in the economy and limited funding for schools, the district employees did not receive their annual step increase to the next pay level.

“I am advocating for those missed years, which helps everybody,” Percy said.

There is an absurd policy in the contract, she said.

There are three employees who worked for many years with the district who left then came back to work for the district, Percy said. They are making more money than the loyal employees that stayed with the district the whole time during the “frozen years” (with no step increase). This happened because there is a rule in the contract that says when someone is re-employed they get all their years (steps), she said.

Where did that logic come from? she asked.

Deputy Superintendent Andrew Lethbridge said there are definitely parts of the contract that “you don’t agree with” that have been in place for a number of years. The provision Percy referred to, giving credit to returning employees, is part of the contract and will still be a part of the contract whether the School Board approves it or not. The board is voting on the contract changes.

That provision would have to be negotiated out, which takes time, he said.

The district went through some very tough and lean years when the salary steps were frozen, Lethbridge said. Many counties were handing out pink slips, while then Superintendent Wally Cox and the School Board never handed out one pink slip to anyone.

Two sides came together for an agreement in good faith, he said. “I think it is a good proposal that is before you that does move it forward and then we start more work to do.”

Support employee Tammy Mortenson said she intends to become more active in the union.

All of the union officers are exhausted and don’t have the time or energy or desire to do the necessary research to get a good contract, she said.

“I feel it needs to go back to the table,” Mortenson said. With those who are willing to step up, they can renegotiate a better contract.

Superintendent Brenda Longshore noted that Lethbridge said, “there isn’t a perfect contract; there never will be a perfect contract.”

As more is discovered they will continue to do the work, she said. It is a strong contract and the people have spoken with a large percentage of employees who did vote and a large percentage who voted for it.

“I just hope that you will strongly consider voting ‘yes’ for this contract for our employees,” Longshore said.

The School Board voted down the contract by a 3-2 vote with School Board Chair Bill Brantley and School Board Member Isaac Durrance voting “yes” to approve it. Vice Chair Donna Howerton and Board Members Jill Compton Twist and Jan Shoop voted “no.”

Support union negotiations will be scheduled to resume.

Earlier in the meeting, the board approved the teachers union contract.

Later in the meeting, the board approved the teachers’ salary schedule changes, but tabled the support employee and non-bargaining personnel salary schedule changes.

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