Orange County school district agrees to delay health insurance hikes, raise pay for school staff

The district reached a tentative agreement with the local teachers' union after a nearly nine-hour public hearing Tuesday

click to enlarge Orange County school district agrees to delay health insurance hikes, raise pay for school staff
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After declaring impasse over contract negotiations with the local teachers’ union last fall, the Orange County school district has (finally) reached a deal with the union that delays a proposed health insurance rate hike and offers a nearly 10 percent raise for most teachers.

“Teachers came together to demand a fair contract,” said union president Clinton McCracken in a statement. “This agreement stands as a testament to the strength of our unity and represents a pivotal step towards supporting teachers while paving the way for ongoing negotiations to explore alternative solutions to the health insurance challenges facing the district.”

If teachers and other school staff represented by the union approve the deal, they’d see their raises in April, retroactive to the first day of work for the current school year. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the average annual raise would be $5,400.

The primary issue of contention in contract talks was a health insurance rate hike proposed by the district. A public hearing on the issue Tuesday lasted over eight hours. In the end, the district and the union reached an agreement that delays the full cost of the rate hikes to the 2025-26 school year, instead of June 30, 2024, as the district originally wanted.

Florida ranks 48th in the nation for its average teacher salary of $51,230.

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The district agreed to pay $4.4 million to help cover about half the cost of what the increase would have been for staff next school year (2024-25). This means most teachers will see a rate increase come September, but it will be far less than what was originally proposed.

According to the union, another “crucial element” of the tentative deal is a promise from the district to explore other cost-saving measures with the union “that may help avert future premium increases.”

The Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, a labor union representing nearly 14,000 school staff in the district, had warned the district’s proposal could result in an average 64 percent increase in health insurance costs for employees. The actual amount would have varied depending on the health plan, but would have ranged between $545 to $3,459, according to a presentation from the union’s counsel.

The district has put off raising insurance rates for four years, but per the Sentinel, officials have said that continuing to do so is no longer financially sustainable. The union, which also represents some other school staff such as school psychologists, had fought the district’s proposal, arguing the national estimate for rate increases is about 5 to 7 percent.

A special magistrate last month, serving as a third-party mediator, sided with the union on the issue, recommending the district forgo their proposed rate hike. While the magistrate didn’t agree with the union that the proposed hike was “astronomical,” the district had proposed establishing the rate hike on the last day of the union’s contract with the district on June 30, 2024 which both the union and the magistrate found odd.

According to McCracken, a former art teacher elected union president in 2022, the district had already agreed not to raise insurance costs for the current school year. McCracken told Orlando Weekly last week that, to them, it felt like the district was trying to “sneak in” the increases.

The union also worried that the rate hikes would dilute the gains of the salary increases the two parties had already agreed upon, which the district has described to the press as “historic.”

The union had already successfully fought for the salary hikes to be percentage-based, rather than the flat amounts the school staff they represent are used to.

This calculation is expected to help longtime teachers the most, who McCracken says “barely make more than a beginning teacher.” The flat amount, he explained, created “massive wage compression problems” for experienced educators.

Other school districts in Florida have seen this issue, too, and several — like Orange County — try to help address that gap with supplemental pay for teachers with more experience or advanced degrees.

The Orange County area has seen a major spike in its cost of living since the pandemic, and no one denies that this has posed a challenge in efforts to both retain and recruit new qualified teachers to the field.

Florida ranks 48th in the nation for its average teacher salary of $51,230 and 16th in its average starting teacher salary of $45,171, according to data compiled by the National Education Association. In Orange County, the starting salary is currently $48,400.

Members of the Orange County school board — who have the final say on contract ratification, if approved by union members — expressed that they were pleased by the agreement, but frustrated that it took so long.

“[I’m] very frustrated that bargaining started in June, and we had to go through this and keep our teachers from getting a raise this entire year,” said District 7 board member and former teacher Melissa Byrd. “I'm pleased that we don't have to impose something,” she added, “but I'm frustrated that we couldn't have done this eight months ago.”

Karen Castor-Dentel, also a former teacher and board member for District 6, said it “hurts morale” when negotiations drag on, “making some out to be villains.”

“I will stand by every member of this board for fighting and looking out for the teacher's best interest. It may not have appeared that way because negotiations broke down, but every one of these members up here we're working hard for the best result possible,” she said.

According to the union, the voting process for members will begin on the tentative agreement this week.

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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