Florida Teachers Sue To Toss Performance Pay As An Intrusion On Bargaining Rights

Jan 17, 2013

TALLAHASSEE -- Lawyers for a group of teachers asked a Leon County judge on Wednesday to throw out a nearly two-year-old state law aimed at tying teacher's pay and evaluations more closely to student performance.

TOUGH CASE: Judge John Cooper tells teachers he doesn't know how he'll rule in their suit against performance pay.
Credit FEA

The challenge to the law, backed by the Florida Education Association, is the latest chapter in a long-running battle between Republicans and the teachers union over how educators should be assessed and paid. The plaintiffs argue that the law is so specific that it interferes in the unions' constitutionally-guaranteed right to negotiate employment contracts with school districts.

"The Legislature made no accommodation, no attempt whatsoever to accommodate collective bargaining," said Tom Brooks, an attorney for the teachers, in arguments before Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper.

"That's what they say in this statute: 'You can have a salary schedule that has to look exactly like this,'" said Ron Meyer, Brooks' partner.

In a rare step, Cooper told attorneys that he was still unsure how he would rule in the case -- cautioning them not to read anything into his questions.

"I ordinarily have an idea of where I'm going in a case before I get to this stage," Cooper said. "I do not here. I do not have that idea yet."

The state contends that the law does not go too far, pointing out that 60 contracts have already been collectively bargained under the new standards. 

Michael Mattimore, a private lawyer arguing the case for the state, said the law -- known as SB 736 -- only lays out broad standards that school districts and unions can still negotiate over.

"In every one of these areas of 736, there is still significant, material, substantive ability to collectively bargain," Mattimore said. "No door has been closed. Things have not been taken off the table."

And he pointed out that state law already addressed how teachers were supposed to be evaluated before SB 736 passed.

"It wasn't silent," Mattimore said. "This isn't a law we're creating new."

Brooks countered that school districts are essentially just taking orders from the state law as they put together the contracts.

"All that's gone on in terms of bargaining is they took what was mandated in this law and tried to tell with it the best they can," he said. "That is not bargaining over the decision of whether to do it at all."

Brandon Larrabee reports for the News Service of Florida.