Representatives from the Santa Rosa Professional Educators say the Florida Educators Association is seeking to keep the local teacher’s union from disaffiliating from the statewide organization. SRPE President Rhonda Chavers and attorney Matthew Hargraves have called into question recent actions taken by the FEA.

“It happened pretty quick,” Chavers said. “(FEA) was going to vote to put us in with Central Panhandle and raise our dues.”

Earlier this month in a telephone conference with FEA officials, Chavers said she, along with another SRPE official, were told the local Santa RosaCounty teacher’s union would soon be absorbed into Central Panhandle, leading to the dissolution of the SRPE. Instead of having a local staff, SRPE members would have to contact another union branch potentially as far away as Tallahassee, Chavers said. 

“Really what it comes down to is two things. We didn’t want our local group to be dissolved and we didn’t want our members’ dues to go up. We were told that was going to happen,” Hargraves said.

Chavers said the move would also negatively impact local members.

“We could see services decreasing,” she said. “If you’re not going to have staff in the office every day, then you are not going to have services.”

 The information was presented to the SRPE executive board during a regular meeting. In an unanimous vote the board voted to disaffiliate from FEA.

 “That is what has provoked the response from FEA,” Hargraves said.

SRPE members received emails and automated calls last week from FEA representatives and non SRPE representatives, Hargraves said.

“An email did go out from an FEA representative claiming that person was SRPE staff, which is not true,” Hargraves said. “So, we obviously consider that to be a problem that members would be misled by a state organization.”

Recently, an article in the Northwest Florida Daily News and the Press Gazette stated SRPE may have fallen behind on their dues payments. Chavers said the discrepancy stems from a misunderstanding regarding the current number of members within the SRPE. The SRPE currently has more than 950 members, while the FEA bills for a larger amount. In addition to contacting FEA officials on the matter with no results, Chavers said the SRPE submitted payments based on what they believe is the right amount.  Regardless of the amount, Chavers and Hargraves said those payments were accepted by the FEA.

“We are solvent and if we owe people, we respect that debt,” Chavers said. “We want to make sure we are not overbilled.”

As legal counsel for the SRPE, Hargraves is currently in contact with attorneys from the FEA regarding the amount owed.

“I have received communication from FEA as to a specific amount that they believe is due in owing,” Hargraves said. “It is a disputed amount right now…I have conveyed that to their attorney.”

Hargraves said FEA representatives have removed FEA-owned computer equipment from the SRPE office. However, staff were prepared for this to happen.

“They did recover FEA equipment,” Hargraves said, “We had already made arrangements for our own computers and our own server, so it didn’t disrupt significant operations.”

Hargraves said SRPE members were made aware, by the FEA, their benefits would disappear should the disaffiliation be finalized. However, with the exception of new members, SRPE members with existing contracts with medical providers, for example, would not change with the disaffiliation from FEA.

“We have contacted some of our existing providers to see about the status. We were told it is not going to change the relationship already existing,” Hargraves said.

 Chavers added the SRPE is already putting together benefits package together for current members.

Both Chavers and Hargraves said the disaffiliation would be cost effective for members, adding the SRPE pays nearly $30,000 a month in dues to the FEA.

“We believe we can provide, find or secure legal representation for our members as the need may arise on a more cost effective basis than what is currently being provided under affiliation with FEA,” Hargraves said.

Updated 2:41 p.m.

Mark Pudlow, a FEA spokesperson, confirmed the organization reached out to the SRPE members about this matter. He said they held several town hall meetings along with representatives visiting area schools.

 “As far as disaffiliation, it’s an important decision for all members of the SRPE,” he said.    

Pudlow said members should further inquire why the SRPE has not paid the full amount of dues. He also said the SRPE is more than $128,000 in debt to the FEA.

“That is just another question members should be asking,” he said.

FEA is also considering legal action against the SRPE in regards to the disaffiliation matter, Pudlow said.

He said there was no talk of dissolving the SRPE from FEA, only implementing changes which could better serve members in Santa RosaCounty. He confirmed this could potentially lead to due increases over an extended period of time. Members currently have full FEA benefits, Pudlow said, adding the FEA wants to have a full discussion with members on this topic.