Pasco school employees protest for better wages, with support from union 'brothers and sisters'
Clad in red, United School Employees of Pasco members took to the street Tuesday evening to rally for better contract terms, including higher wages, from the Pasco County School Board.
They then packed the board meeting, asking for increased job security for teachers on annual contract who earn an "effective" or "highly effective" evaluation rating -- something the Pinellas school district provides but Pasco leaders have refused to offer. USEP president Kenny Blankenship, who declared impasse in contract talks a week ago shortly after putting a pay proposal on the table, had promised to pack the room with concerned teachers and support staff.
What he didn't expect was the outside support.
Teachers from Pinellas and Hernando counties joined the USEP in its protest, walking the line outside the meeting and speaking to the board, as well. Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo said he came out to "show support for the brothers and sisters."
In comments to the board, Gandolfo urged the district to join Pinellas in guaranteeing well-evaluated teachers on annual contract a job for the following year.
"Reward hard working highly effective teachers with job security," he said. "I understand why the law says you can nonrenew a teacher without due process. ... What I don't get is why superintendents and school boards would hide behind bad law."
Pinellas teacher Rachel Lachiusa, who has an annual contract, told the board that she chose to work in Pinellas because of its protections. "I want to stress to you how important it is," said Lachiusa, one of four Pinellas teachers to speak to the Pasco board.
USEP leaders and members repeatedly have made the point that they could take jobs in neighboring districts for better pay and terms.
"Most teachers know a short drive across the county line might mean a significant raise," teacher Michael Aday said. "I Uber drive just to make ends meet."
Many workers feel unappreciated, added union vice president Lee Beville, a bus driver. "I could leave and go to Hillsborough County and make more money," Beville said. "I don't want to."
Speakers also criticized the district's plan to give non-bargaining employees a raise while those represented by USEP in contract talks go without, among several other concerns.
Board members did not speak during the more than two hours of public comment, much of which came from employees. Afterward, they said the USEP put off contract talks after an August session, asking to wait first for the district's annual financial report in September and, after that, the October student count for the state.
The district requested time for bargaining, they said, but was turned down. When the sides returned to the table a week ago, Blankenship declared impasse after about an hour, saying the district appeared to have no intention to negotiate in good faith.
"Yes, USEP did declare impasse. Our decision was based after months and hours of volunteers spending their time, their personal time ... negotiating in good faith only to receive a response that takes away leave rights from the employees," Blankenship told the board Tuesday. "The poor economic proposal and the district's refusal to respond ... was the straw that broke the camel's back."
The sides have not yet scheduled another time to meet.