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Hillsborough teachers get a hard no on scheduled pay raises

By Marlene Sokol
MARLENE SOKOL | Times
This might be the last teacher bargaining session in Hillsborough for awhile. Although the two sides are not officially at an impasse, the district says it cannot pay teachers their scheduled raises.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County teachers who were expecting $4,000 raises this year will not get them because of continued financial pressures, their union was told this week.

"We cannot responsibly award raises," employee relations manager Mark West told the union during bargaining talks.

Over the last three years, he estimated, the district has given out $75 million in raises. "That spending has kind of caught up with us," he said.

The news, which affects roughly a third of more than 14,000 teachers, comes as the district contends with less-than-stellar reports from bond rating firms that look out for investors who hold Hillsborough’s sizable real estate debt.

Despite efforts since the summer of 2015 to reduce spending and shore up the district’s main reserve fund, analysts noticed a slight drop in that reserve this past year, amounting to a $5 million operating deficit.

Moody's and Standard & Poor's gave the district negative outlooks, while Fitch's outlook improved from negative to stable.

The analysts noted that some 1,000 jobs have been phased out, mostly through attrition. But the results have yet to appear in the bottom line.

In withholding raises, West said the district is trying to avoid layoffs. He said no one should be hurt, to which union director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins responded: "You are free to propose what you wish. You are not free to say it doesn’t hurt people."

The existing pay plan originated during teaching reforms Hillsborough launched in 2009 with help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

While Bill Gates wanted teachers to be rewarded entirely on merit, the union insisted that, to keep top teachers, there must be an expectation of higher earnings.

The result was a plan that freezes salaries for three years, then adds a $4,000 bump in the fourth year. The same happens every three years after that. To qualify, a teacher must have at least a satisfactory rating.

District officials estimate these so-called "band jumps" cost $17 million a year. The union disputes that figure because many high-earning teachers retire over the course of the year.

While district leaders have been reluctant to criticize the plan itself, they have at times blamed it for Hillsborough’s operating deficits.

The union says that rather than withholding money from teachers, district leaders should re-examine other spending decisions, including the growing number of administrators earning more than $100,000 a year.

"Sometimes financial challenges are not ones that you can flip a switch and get right out of," superintendent Jeff Eakins said on Monday, shortly before the bargaining session.

He said he has worked to improve work conditions for his 25,000 employees. A newly adopted bell schedule will give high school teachers more time to plan, and cut down on the stress bus drivers feel when rushing from one run to another.

Teacher evaluations are more supportive, and teacher training happens in the schools instead of across town on weekends.

"Setting the right conditions for employees to be successful is really the mission I’ve been on," Eakins said.

But teachers weren’t seeing it at the bargaining table.

Baxter-Jenkins wondered how Hillsborough will compete for talented new teachers, now that neighboring Pinellas County is offering starting salaries that are $5,000 higher at $43,000.

"We appear to be going backward while everyone else is going forward," she said.

She used the word "impasse" twice during the bargaining session, although the two sides have not officially reached that stage.

During Monday’s session, Baxter-Jenkins asked many questions about how the district spends its $2.8 billion yearly budget.

She questioned chief business officer Gretchen Saunders about the year-end financial report, which showed a savings of $40 million. Her argument: That $40 million would be more than enough to give teachers the raises they were expecting.

But Saunders said that money was earmarked for specific items, such as textbooks. "Within that $2.8 billion budget, there is stuff that you cannot pay salaries out of," she said.

Another bargaining session is scheduled for Oct. 31, but it is not yet clear if it will take place.