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Victory times 3

How three Columbia County union members got back their jobs

Every member has heard the slogan, “the union has your back.” Every year, hundreds of our union brothers and sisters in Florida learn firsthand the truth of those words. A remarkable string of arbitration victories in Columbia County, home to Lake City and about 70,000 people, stands as a case in point.

Three members of the Columbia Teachers Association (CTA) have stepped forward to share details of their stories of struggle and eventual professional triumph. For each of these teachers, that story involves an action that all working people fear — termination of employment.

Cindy Burgett

CIndy Burgett

A 40-year veteran teacher, Cindy began working at Fort White Elementary in 2009 and is currently a first-grade teacher.

  • Cindy has an unblemished record.
  • In February 2021 the district wrongfully suspended her without pay and terminated her from her teaching position at Fort White Elementary School for an allegation of misconduct from a parent.
  • Upon the disciplinary action, CTA immediately filed a grievance. The district was unwilling to discuss the grievance. Ultimately, CTA had to bring the case to an arbitration hearing. The all-day hearing was held in September 2021.
  • CTA represented Cindy through arbitration, maintaining there was no substance or basis to the allegation and the district had no cause to terminate based on Florida statute and Article III of the CTA contract.
  • In November 2021, the arbitrator ruled the suspension and termination were improper due to lack of just cause because the district used “uncorroborated hearsay statements which cannot be used to substantiate such a serious charge used to end the career of a 40-year educator with an unblemished record.”
  • The arbitrator ruled that the union member’s right to due process was violated by not giving proper notice and basis for the termination.
  • The arbitrator also ordered that Cindy be reinstated to her exact same position at the same school and made whole for all missed salary and benefits, including all supplements and FRS retirement that should have been credited to the employee by the district.

Cindy is now back to work in her same classroom and same school.

"Without the union, and without the prayers of family and friends praying for justice, I would not have my teaching job. You need to be a part of the union, especially if you are on annual contract as a teacher. Continuing contract teachers also need to remember that the union has fought for working conditions for all teachers, not just union members."
CIndy Burgett
Cindy Burgett

Denise Nash

An 18-year veteran of Columbia County Schools, Denise has spent 16 of those years at Lake City Middle School teaching self-contained exceptional student education (ESE) kids.

  • Denise had never been previously disciplined for anything.
  • She was accused by coworkers of misconduct in January 2021, and the administration at her school investigated the allegation and found no evidence to support the allegations.
  • Two months later, the district re-opened an investigation after a relative of an accusing co-worker complained to the superintendent. The allegation was “re-investigated.”
  • In March 2021, Denise was suspended without pay and wrongfully terminated from her teaching position.
  • Upon the disciplinary action, CTA immediately filed a grievance. The district was unwilling to discuss the grievance and CTA had to bring the case to an arbitration hearing. The all-day hearing was held in October 2021.
  • CTA represented Denise through arbitration, maintaining her due process rights were violated, and there was no actual legal basis for the district to terminate based on Florida statute and Article III of the CTA contract.
  • In December 2021, the arbitrator ruled the termination was improper due to lack of just cause because the district did not consider her long career and good work record, stating: “An important mitigating factor in this case is the grievant’s length of service with the school district. The grievant was employed for approximately 16 years with the school This tenure deserves the status of a long-term employee. Another mitigating factor is that there is no evidence that the grievant has ever received any discipline from the school district.” The arbitrator further stated: “Indeed, it is an essential element of ‘just cause’ that the penalty in a discipline case be fair and reasonable and fitting to the facts and circumstances of the case.”
  • The arbitrator also ordered that Denise be reinstated to her position and be credited with all contractual benefits that were accorded to her.

Denise is back to work at a new location, Fort White High School, and is teaching ESE students again.

“The union and FEA were so supportive. Always supporting with phone calls, emails and texts. They have lots of knowledge on county, state and federal laws.”
Denise Nash
Denise Nash

Lisa King

Lisa is a six-year veteran of Fort White Elementary School, a second-grade teacher and a worksite representative for her union.

  • In June 2021, Lisa was wrongfully suspended without pay and terminated from her teaching position at Fort White Elementary School due to an allegation of misconduct made by a coworker.
  • Upon the disciplinary action, CTA immediately filed a grievance. The district was again unwilling to discuss the grievance. CTA brought the case to an arbitration hearing. Two all-day hearings were held in October and December 2021.
  • CTA represented Lisa through arbitration, maintaining her due process rights were violated, and there was no actual legal basis for the district to terminate based on Florida statute and Article III of the CTA contract.
  • In February, the arbitrator ruled that the termination and suspension without pay were improper, pointing out “The assistant superintendent ‘guessed’” when conducting the investigation. Of the school safety officer, the arbitrator said, “In preparing her written opinion, the school safety specialist talked to the assistantsuperintendent and viewed part of the security videotape. The school safety officer did not interview any of the teachers or staff who eventually provided witness statements on May 26 and 27, 2021. Her opinion was based upon hearsay.”
  • Ultimately the arbitrator stated: “Upon a review of the entire record, including the consideration of mitigating circumstances, the penalty of dismissal is determined not to be reasonably related to the seriousness of the misconduct. The preponderance of the reliable record evidence shows dismissal was not warranted or justified. Impositions of the severe penalty violated the ‘just cause’ provision in Article III (Association and Teacher Rights), Section U (Teacher Discipline), at paragraph three of the CBA.”
  • The arbitrator ordered that Lisa be reinstated to the district and be provided all benefits and back pay.

Lisa is now back to work at a new location, Richardson Sixth Grade Academy, teaching English language arts (ELA).

“I might have let my termination go … in turn I would have forfeited my chance to work in this county again and possibly my certificate. It was a lot for a single mom with a child in their senior year of high school. The loss of my household’s sole income was detrimental, especially considering my termination was found to be without cause and for a lengthy period. The union not only returned me to work, but they ensured my record and certificate were cleared and I was awarded full back pay. I cannot express how important it is to support the union by being a member. I am proof you do not have to be a negligent teacher to need the union’s support. Bottom line: When you support your union; your union will support you.”
Lisa King
Lisa King

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