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As contract talks stall, Hillsborough teachers campaign for raises with email and pickets

By Marlene Sokol
Teachers picketed outside Steinbrenner High School on Monday morning. They are pushing for scheduled pay raises of $4,000 for roughly a third of the district's teaching force. The Hillsborough County School District says it can't afford the pay bump. [Photo courtesy of WTSP-Ch. 10]

TAMPA — With contract negotiations stalled, Hillsborough County teachers are on a campaign to try to get their scheduled pay raises.

Emails are going out to the School Board, superintendent Jeff Eakins and the media, from parents and teachers alike.

"I have been rated highly effective for the entirety of my career," wrote Emmie Deininger, a seventh-grade teacher at Farnell Middle School in Westchase.

"I am a team leader. I am co-sponsor of a girls’ service club … I do a lot. I love all of it because I love teaching and I love kids."

The campaign is under way in the third straight year in which negotiations have dragged on long after classes began.

RELATED: Read the teacher and parent letters here

Teachers have picketed outside Steinbrenner High. On television and on social media, they are encouraging one another to "work the contract." That means working only when school is in session, and not staying later or grading papers at home.

It’s the closest they can come to a strike, which is not allowed for teachers in Florida.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough teachers get a hard no on scheduled pay raises

At the last bargaining session, district negotiators said they cannot afford to credit teachers for their last year of service for pay purposes. They said it would cost $17 million to give roughly a third of the 14,000 teachers raises of $4,000, which they get every three years if they have high enough evaluation scores.

Nor could the negotiators guarantee future raises.

Union leaders question nearly everything the district says about money, including the $17 million estimate.

At a meeting Tuesday of the School Board’s finance committee, no one mentioned teacher pay. But there were references to the district’s gloomy financial state.

Despite two years of cost-cutting that phased out more than 1,000 jobs, the district lost $5 million this past year in its main reserve fund.

It would have been worse without transfers from other funds; expenses exceeded revenues by close to $50 million.

The district is deep in debt for schools it built during the high-growth years before the 2007 recession. Two out of three bond rating firms that look out for the lenders have issued negative outlooks for the district in the last month.

They left the bond ratings unchanged. But some warned that if reserves continue to shrink, those ratings could drop.

"When they look at our fund balance and see that $5 million decrease, to them, that’s significant," said Gretchen Saunders, chief business officer.

District leaders have gone school by school, trying to find positions that are no longer needed. They cut bus service. They merged some departments.

But as soon as they make headway, other problems emerge.

For example: The state has ordered districts to submit contingency plans for all D and F schools, in case they don’t improve to at least a C by the end of this school year.

Hillsborough has seven such schools. For all seven, the district chose what could be the most expensive model: Hiring an outside consultant to help run them.

That cost will likely fall to the district. "We’re still going to have seven principals and 14 assistant principals," board member Susan Valdes said. "And everything else."

In the meantime, the letter-writing campaign continues.

Parent Jessica Sladky wrote to Eakins: "My daughter reads news articles daily and was disheartened to hear that you were not a man of your word and she is very concerned that some of her favorite teachers will end up leaving because of the choice you made. In her eyes, you are not being a good leader and she has lost faith in you as our superintendent."

She added: "My son will be starting kindergarten next year and we will now begin looking at other options."

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, said Tuesday she is hoping for a breakthrough, but nothing is guaranteed.

The union will discuss strategy at a board meeting Thursday. A separate gathering for is planned for 5 p.m. Wednesday at the La Teresita restaurant in West Tampa.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 810-5068 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol