A debate engaged in Florida for more than two years which had an airing in Gulf County this summer has been put to rest, at least locally.

A debate engaged in Florida for more than two years which had an airing in Gulf County this summer has been put to rest, at least locally.

The Gulf County School Board on Tuesday denied a formal grievance brought by the Gulf Education Association, the union representing teachers, concerning the process used in this summer’s Reduction in Force.

In one sense, the arguments echoed a larger discussion in the state since the 2011 legislative passage of a sweeping education bill.

Among a host of other provisions, that bill include a prohibition for local districts undertaking a Reduction in Force from using seniority in any way in the process of identifying teachers to be laid off.

That provision was at the heart of the GEA grievance that statute was in conflict with the teacher’s master contract and the contract, not the statute should control until the expiration of the contract in 2014.

The union also argued that its grievance should carry because the district failed to respond in a timely fashion.

The union sought to force the district to use the master contract, which mandates that the least senior teachers be the first let go, in the RIF process.

Mark Powell, attorney for the union, argued that has the master contract, ratified initially in 2010 with an expiration of 2014, mandated the district use seniority in RIF decisions.

The Florida Constitution bars state statute from trumping an existing contract, so to not follow the contract was an error by Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton.

“The RIF was inconsistent with the contract,” Powell told the School Board. “The law requires you to follow the contract rather than the statute enacted after the contract was put in place.

“To follow the statute instead of the contract entered into by the both parties is an incorrect action.”

The relief he sought was for the district to return to the beginning and have a do-over on the RIF adhering to the dictates of the contract.

Board attorney Charles Costin said, however, that the board was unable to follow Powell’s suggestion because state law barred them from considering seniority in any fashion – solely teacher evaluations instead – in the RIF.

“If the law says the RIF can not be done by seniority, any timelines are moot,” Costin said, echoing one of the arguments from Jerry Copeland, who represented Norton’s interests in the hearing.

Copeland argued that the Senate Bill passed in 2011 that put in place the process for considerations during a RIF essentially wiped out that language in the master contract.

“You can not grieve language in a contract that no longer exists,” Copeland said.

And given the dictates from Tallahassee, “We are a little baffled why this grievance even exists.”

Copeland said the district had attempted to negotiate the impacts of the Senate Bill on the master contract after its 2011 passage but the union had countered it was not willing to negotiate issues which were subject to litigation.

Further, Copeland noted that the Senate Bill and its application – specifically impacts on local collective bargaining contracts – had thus far been found constitutional in the courts, though cases remain on appeal.

“In my opinion this board has no other alternative except to dismiss this grievance,” Copeland said.

Powell contended that state law could not change a contract, but under questioning from Costin, a key point, at least for Costin and in turn the board emerged.

Copeland argued, though Powell disagreed, that the contract had been reopened in 2012, leaving salary schedules and language in place.

That he said constituted a “re-adoption” of the contract.

Costin agreed and suggested to the board that this was a central point; as the contract had been in a form “re-adopted”, as noted in the Senate Bill, the contract language regarding the RIF was trumped by the statute passed in 2011.

“My concern is that the language has been re-adopted, then the statute controls,” Costin said.

During the RIF earlier this summer, the district reduced three positions at Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School, two at Wewahitchka Elementary School and one non-instructional position at WES.

Among the teachers let go, three had more than 30 years experience, one 26 years and another six.