LARGO — Pinellas County school employees may not face furloughs if they agree instead to absorb higher health care costs.
That's the offer School Board bargaining representatives made Thursday to union officials.
"We're trying to take the furlough plan off the table," Ron Ciranna, assistant superintendent of human resources, told those gathered at the Pinellas County Teachers Association and Pinellas Education Support Personnel Association headquarters in Largo. "This model allows that to happen."
According to the proposal, employees would pay 25 percent of their health insurance premiums on average, with the school district picking up 75 percent. Currently, the school district foots about 80 percent of the bill.
Under the district's most popular health insurance package, it would mean the following increases: $284 more per year for single person coverage; $626.20 more per year for a two-person household; and $1,600 more per year for families.
Under a plan floated earlier this summer, district officials estimated they could save roughly $7 million by having 17,000 employees take unpaid leave, also known as furlough.
On Thursday, Ciranna repeatedly told those gathered that the health proposal would stave off the need for furloughs.
But neither he nor other district officials gathered from finance or risk management offered a clear picture as to why the proposed health care costs are needed in light of an announcement last week that the 2010-12 budget year is closing $7 million better than was projected when administrators first proposed furloughs.
"It's not that simple," said Steve Swartzel, the district's chief negotiator. "The fund balance is what's left at the end of the year. Everything's connected, and this is a process that will work its way through."
Kim Black, the teachers union president, said she does think it's possible for the district to avoid furloughs and health care cuts thanks to the rosier budget picture. "It appears the district wants to use the furloughs as a bargaining chip," she said.
Union officials are expected to return with a counter offer during their next meeting, Aug. 30.
Rick Brant, organizer for Service Employees International Union, said he was uncomfortable with the health insurance proposal. His union represents 2,500 service employees, including bus drivers, custodians and food service workers.
For a bus driver who makes $10 an hour, he said, a $31 per paycheck premium increase is substantial.
"I do think the burden is just untenable," he said.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or email@example.com.