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

3:13 p.m Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017 Homepage
Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa (right) blasted county teachers union president Justin Katz as “hostile” and “inexperienced." (Palm Beach Post file photos)

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.”

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.”

“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.”

Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post
Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
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Palm Beach County teachers union President Justin Katz

Justin Katz – President

Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association

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