LAND O'LAKES — A faceoff over furloughs is brewing for Pasco County's largest employer.
Pasco School Board members want to use mandatory unpaid leave to save as much as $8 million in spending, as they seek to slash general operations by $54 million or so. And they'd like to get the United School Employees of Pasco to agree to such a move soon.
That would allow the board to spread the pay reduction across the maximum number of paydays while also allowing them to avoid other cuts. Officials have proposed four furlough days for 12-month employees, and three furlough days for everyone else.
"I would hope certainly that after our very public process and meetings with all the stakeholders and everybody involved that they would understand the need for those," board vice chairman Allen Altman said. "Our hope and desire is that we would work together to make it happen."
But while USEP president Lynne Webb acknowledges that furloughs must be one of the first issues up for consideration, she has yet to commit to the concept. The union still needs more financial information, Webb said, along with some assurances that if the district takes more money out than it ultimately needs, the employees will get reimbursed.
"One way or the other, within two weeks we need to resolve this issue," Webb said before negotiations Wednesday, where both sides dealt with more mundane issues such as employee dress code and indoor air quality. The discussion on furloughs is expected in the weeks ahead.
If the USEP does not support furloughs, Altman said, the board would have to consider other spending cuts. These could include additional layoffs. It also might look at increased premiums for insurance benefits.
"Or," he added, "the board might impose" — implementing the furloughs by fiat.
The school district has asked its labor lawyers to investigate whether it may unilaterally put employees on unpaid leave. They are looking closely at a recent Public Employees Relations Commission order that stated the Martin County Commission could impose furloughs without collective bargaining.
Pasco school employees have different contractual terms than the Martin County workers, district employee relations director Kevin Shibley noted. So the order might not directly apply.
But board attorney Dennis Alfonso suggested that those details might not impact the overall implications.
"It's not whether or not they can be imposed," Alfonso said. "What is going to be negotiated is the details of how it is going to be imposed."
Webb said she has reviewed the order and she did not see how it could apply to the school district employees. She noted that the district's contract specifies a number of days to be worked, which might not jibe with what happened in Martin County.
Even though district officials are looking at imposing furloughs conceptually, Shibley said, it would be a last resort only.
"We're still hopeful we may be able to come to an agreement … without having to invoke the management right clause," he said.
Once the furlough issue is settled, both Shibley and Webb expected teacher employment matters related to Senate Bill 736 to take center stage. The bill, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in the spring, changes the way teachers are hired, contracted, certified and paid.
"A lot of our contract language has been identified as unacceptable to the Legislature," Shibley said. "There's going to have to be a lot of language changes."
Webb was not keen on simply accepting the new law as the way things will be for teachers.
"I think there are going to be challenges to this law," she said. "I am not going to hurry into massive negotiated changes for an evaluation system that, we all know in our heart, stinks."
The untested evaluation system for performance pay is but one concern for USEP. Webb also had concerns about the state's move away from seniority to determine job status, arguing that the lawmakers simply had interfered in collective bargaining rights that are protected in the Florida constitution.
"I am not confident that this law will stand the legal test," she said. "At this point, my approach is 'take it slow.' "
Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the Florida Education Association, said the state teachers union is assessing its options for a legal challenge to SB 736 as law. He also suggested that a separate lawsuit could be waged if a district attempts to impose the law's provisions onto an existing contract.
Representatives for the teachers side of the USEP are scheduled to bargain with the district today. The next talks are slated to take place in two weeks.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.