Hillsborough school district and its teachers are at a bargaining impasse, but still talking

Meaghan Leto, (center facing street), a speech therapist from Twin Lakes Elementary, protests with the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association outside of a School Board meeting Dec. 5 in Tampa. The union and the school district are at a bargaining impasse over pay for the current school year. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Meaghan Leto, (center facing street), a speech therapist from Twin Lakes Elementary, protests with the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association outside of a School Board meeting Dec. 5 in Tampa. The union and the school district are at a bargaining impasse over pay for the current school year. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
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TAMPA — A months-long conflict over planned pay raises has moved to a new phase with the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association declaring a bargaining impasse with the public school district.

The two sides, which began negotiations in late spring, have not been able to agree on a pay package for the current school year that affects 20,000 employees, most of them teachers.

The union wants about a third of its teachers to advance along a schedule that would raise their salaries by $4,000.

The district says it cannot afford this step, which would add between $15 million and $17 million to yearly payroll costs, and instead offered a total bonus package of $1.8 million.

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The district also wants to renegotiate the pay plan, which was enacted in 2013. The plan, which came about during ambitious teaching reforms in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, freezes pay for three years and then increases it in the fourth. Whether a teacher is due for the raise depends on when he or she entered the workforce.

The district says it is under pressure from the investment community to protect its reserves, and must hold the line on recurring expenses such as payroll. The union says money exists for the teacher raises, but the district is choosing to spend it elsewhere.

Both sides stressed Friday that negotiations can and will continue despite the new impasse status.

"We recognize this has been a challenging time during our bargaining sessions," said a statement from the district, delivered by spokeswoman Tanya Arja. "Union representatives have told us that this is about more than money and we have taken that seriously."

The statement continued: "We have already begun meeting and working with teachers through the union to address their concerns. That collaboration will not stop. We will continue to work with the union in an effort to arrive at an overall agreement."

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the union, said it has been 25 years since an impasse was called in the Hillsborough school system. Next steps, which are likely to happen after the winter holidays, include selecting a special magistrate who will hold a hearing.

"They’re claiming they have no money, and they’re going to have to prove that," Baxter-Jenkins said. "We will have financial experts who have some alternate readings on that."

Most of the employees represented by the union are teachers, but the bargaining unit also includes clerical workers and teachers’ aides.

Slightly more than half are dues-paying members, but all are covered by the union contract. Under Florida law, they cannot strike.

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News of the impasse caps nearly two months of teacher rallies, student walk-outs and a week-long "work-to-contract" action intended to show parents how much of a teacher’s work takes place after hours.

The union is asking its members to resume the cutbacks, but in a modified fashion, as many teachers are reluctant to skimp on activities that benefit their students.

"Where you can, work your contract," Baxter-Jenkins said. "Where you don’t feel comfortable, then be hashtagging (in other words, posting to social media) all you are doing beyond the contract."

Union leaders also are asking teachers to attend the next School Board meeting on Jan. 23 in large numbers, as they did for the last two meetings.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol

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