Tempers flare as Avossa calls teachers union head ‘hostile’ and ‘inexperienced’

Superintendent’s remarks come after tense contract talks and a longstanding feud over teacher meetings


Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa blasted the county teacher union’s first-year president Wednesday as “hostile” and “inexperienced,” accusing him of mishandling contract negotiations and misinforming teachers “in an attempt to incite your membership.”

The comments, made in an email sent by Avossa to union President Justin Katz, were the latest escalation between district and union leaders as the two sides feud over teacher salaries and whether or not teachers have to attend team meetings during their planning time.

Katz responded to Avossa’s criticisms via email, saying that as a union leader he had “an obligation to exercise any and all options to pursue our collective goals.”

Hours later, Katz lambasted recent school district proposals for teachers at a public school board meeting and said he did not intend to temper his opposition to district proposals.

“I apologize to people whose feathers are being ruffled by the way that I conduct myself,” said Katz, who took office this summer and also serves as Boynton Beach’s vice mayor, “but I conduct myself in a deliberate and calculated manner and I am respectful to everyone I engage.”

NEW: Teachers union head says Avossa made false charge against him in critical email

The dust-up stems from prolonged contract talks and a long-brewing fight over whether teachers should be required to attend team meetings that Avossa began calling for last year. Tensions have escalated since the union last week rejected the district’s salary proposal as “unacceptable.”

In recent weeks, Katz has been pressing Avossa to tell principals that they cannot order teachers to attend the team meetings, known as professional learning communities. In an email to Avossa on Monday, Katz warned that if Avossa failed to do so he would take his concerns directly to the school board and media outlets.

In a response Wednesday, Avossa called Katz's threats to air his grievances publicly “unacceptable actions.” He scolded him for “pushing the limits of how negotiations should be managed.”

READ: Avossa drops teacher meeting requirement, blames “isolationists”

“I’ve been very professional with you thus far, but I draw the line at tactics that are not in the best interest of your membership and do not fairly represent the growing majority of teachers who choose not to join [the union], but are directly impacted by your behavior,” Avossa wrote.

“I know you’re new and inexperienced,” Avossa added, “but there’s no excuse for such hostile tactics.”

Avossa also accused Katz of misinforming union members about contract talks and teacher meetings. He said Katz had “edit(ed) the videos of the bargaining session to remove valuable context in an attempt to incite your membership to uninformed reactions.”

He did not say in the email what videos he was referring to, and he declined an interview request Wednesday evening. 

In an interview, Katz denied ever posting online any videos of negotiations and said he wasn’t sure what Avossa was referring to.

“I've only ever posted videos of me speaking at board meetings,” he said. “I've never posted any negotiation videos.”

In an email response to Avossa later Wednesday, Katz wrote  that the school district’s proposals have left the union “with no choice but to speak as forcefully and as loudly as possible.”

“The current negotiation session has been nothing short of an open attack on classroom teachers," he wrote.

District leaders have proposed raising teachers’ pay by an average of 2.4 percent, a raise that Katz has rejected as “unacceptable.” 

In earlier talks, district leaders also proposed changes to teachers’ union contract that would affect their planning time and the number of periods that high school teachers teach. Those proposals were later withdrawn after the union rejected them.

“All of this is business to me and I do my best never to take things personal,” Katz wrote. “I would hope the same would be able to be said from the district’s side of the table.”

“But again, I have to do what I believe is right by teachers and by extension, our students.”

Read Avossa’s full email below

Justin,

While I appreciate your passion and energy to represent your members, let me remind you that I have every right to mandate practices that improve outcomes for children. In fact, the community has made it clear this is their expectation of me. It has come to my attention that misinformation has been circulated to teachers with regard to Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). It is important that we are all on the same page with what the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the CTA and the School Board does and does not allow.

Under the law, the Superintendent has the authority to oversee the District school system in order to determine problems and needs, and recommend improvements. Additionally, it is important to note that the CBA only details those rights and responsibilities the District has provided to, or shared with, CTA. All other rights and responsibilities are reserved to the District to determine. This is frequently referred to as Management Rights or Management Prerogatives. 

As the executive officer of the District, I, as the Superintendent, therefore, have the authority to institute procedures and practices that will maximize student achievement. Research has shown that when teachers plan collaboratively, the students (and the teachers) are more successful. Simply put, the District has the authority to mandate collaborative planning.

Article III Section B.4. of the CBA defines “planning periods” as non-student contact time during a teacher’s duty day. In no place is the word “individual” used, implied, or inferred within the CBA. In fact, CTA has proposed adding “individual” before “planning period” during negotiations for at least the past three years with no success. 

The District has a clear past practice of utilizing collaborative planning in a variety of ways for over a decade (grade level, departmental, LTMs, PLCs) with only the one official challenge. During the FY06 school year, the issue of collaborative planning during Learning Team Meetings (LTMs) and whether such planning violated the CBA was grieved (See AAA Case #32-390-00838-06). The grievance was ultimately arbitrated and decided in 2007. CTA’s position, at the time, was that LTMs violated Article III Section B.4. by forcing teachers to forego their planning time to attend these meetings. The arbitrator found that departmental or team planning was not a violation of the CBA. PLCs are team planning and do not violate the CBA, no matter how many days per week they are held. Pursuant to Article VII, CTA and the District agree that “the decision of the arbitrator shall be final and binding on all Parties”. This language applies to all arbitrations. Neither party has the luxury of picking and choosing which decisions to follow. Mandatory PLCs do not violate the CBA.

Despite my legal authority and the clear language in the CBA to the contrary, I have agreed that attendance at PLCs is optional. Principals may provide coverage for those teachers who attend, if the PLC is held during the regular student attendance day; but, teachers who do not wish to attend a PLC are expected to continue with their regular daily schedule. Agendas and notes from the meeting are not required unless the teachers intend to request in-service points for their attendance. 

It is unfortunate that the facts surround PLCs and the rights of the District are being distorted in a manner that is causing confusion and discord among our teachers. I hope that this letter clarifies the issue and allows us to move the District forward. 

Lastly, it’s difficult to imagine that you’d send this type of email – threatening to use the media to solve issues, lobbying board members, pushing the limits of how negotiations should be managed, and editing the videos of the bargaining sessions to remove valuable context in an attempt to incite your membership to uninformed reactions, and that is unacceptable. For complete transparency, I suggest you share with your membership the full and unedited video of Mike Burke’s presentation as It provides important historical and contextual information about Florida funding of public schools and legitimate challenges the District is facing based on recent legislation (https://vodcast.palmbeachschools.org/player/XQABG).

I’ve been very professional with you thus far, but I draw the line at tactics that are not in the best interest of your membership and do not fairly represent the growing majority of teachers who choose not to join CTA, but are directly impacted by your behavior.

I know you’re new and inexperienced, but there’s no excuse for such hostile tactics. I’ve been very outspoken about my commitment to pay increases for all personnel, as well as my commitment to a solution for salary compression. In the past five years, teachers have received the largest of all salary increases, with a 16.26% total increase. We continue to budget the largest portion of funds available for salary increases to our teachers.

I look forward to moving beyond this discussion to a productive bargaining session on November 29.

Robert M. Avossa, Ed.D., Superintendent

School District of Palm Beach County

Read Katz’s full email response below:

I will be in attendance and speak to our disagreements at tonight’s board meeting. 

The membership is demanding resolution to this situation and as their president, I have an obligation to exercise any and all options to pursue our collective goals as an association. That includes engaging all branches of the district government (legislative and executive), as well as engaging the media to communicate to a mass audience.

With regards to “hostile tactics”, the PBCSD has left the PBCCTA with no choice but to speak as forcefully and as loudly as possible. The current negotiation session has been nothing short of an open attack on classroom teachers, with regards to the district’s requests to mandate additional instructional periods, eliminated all but a small fraction of planning time, and provide for raises that no self-respecting association could ever abide.

We have some very serious fundamental disagreements on the aforementioned issues. All of this is business to me and I do my best never to take things personal, I would hope the same would be able to be said from the district’s side of the table. But again, I have to do what I believe is right by teachers and by extension, our students. 

Respectfully and sincerely yours,

Justin Katz – President

Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association


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