BROOKSVILLE — There was little doubt that teachers and other school employees would come out of contract negotiations this year conceding something to help the district close what is now a roughly $7 million budget shortfall.
By Wednesday afternoon, it was clearer how much of the burden the union may be willing to share.
Two days of cordial, relaxed talks began Tuesday morning with district negotiators presenting options that the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association already knew would be coming: Forgo an automatic salary increase already built into the contract (saving $1.95 million) and give up five paid holidays (saving $2.3 million).
The printed offer had a handy reference note pointing out that the first figure is equal to 33 teaching jobs, the second to 39.
After a round of counteroffers, the union presented its ideas:
• Suspend for the first half of the year the automatic salary increase, which is called a step raise and is based on years of experience. In November, negotiators would meet again to gauge the district's financial shape. If the ledger looks good, teachers would be paid the step raise retroactively for the year.
• Teachers would convert three paid grading days into work days for professional development at school. They'd still be paid. That saves money because they don't have to pull teachers out of the classroom for training times and pay for substitutes, union officials said.
• Teachers would not be paid for the last two paid holidays of the year if the district is in a state of financial urgency come November. Negotiators would address that issue then, too.
The strategies are a way for teachers to share the load but also have built-in assurances they might see some of that money if the district has it, Jason Galitsky, the union's bargaining chairman, told the district team.
"Our members need to come into the 2011-12 school year feeling that there is light at the end of the tunnel and there is something waiting for them," Galitsky said.
District negotiators said they were open to the step proposal. But they tripped up on the union's alternatives to taking the five paid holidays. The union's strategy would not save nearly as much money as the district needs, said Heather Martin, executive director of business services.
Many employees would simply take paid personal leave on the two unpaid holidays, Martin said.
"We asked for (five days) and you countered with two," Martin said.
The union's last counteroffer came after Martin presented a proposal that would have teachers completely give up three paid grading days. On those days, the district would offer six hours of optional training per day, and teachers who attend would be paid at the in-service rate of $21 per hour. Beginning teachers make nearly $23 per hour.
The move would save about $1 million. To make up the savings lost by scuttling the holiday proposal, the district would temporarily freeze 22 vacant instructional positions, leaving them unfilled unless the final budget showed the district can afford them. That would save $880,000.
"I know three days is still difficult but there's a way for teachers to earn some of that money back," Martin said.
But that still means money out of teachers' paychecks, union officials said.
Teachers are willing to do their share to save jobs, but they are already seeing their paychecks decrease now that 3 percent of their salary will be taken for pensions, said HCTA president Joe Vitalo. Losing five full paid days would mean another 2.5 percent, Vitalo said.
"We know it's a balancing act," he said. "We feel they don't need to take five days of pay. When the superintendent says he wants to protect livelihood, cutting days is impacting livelihoods."
There was some progress on how to cover an expected 5 percent increase in insurance premiums, with the two sides tentatively agreeing to use about $674,000 in profit-sharing revenue from Blue Cross Blue Shield toward the additional expense.
The union was also willing to make another concession. Newly hired teachers would be able to transfer a maximum of 10 years of experience to establish their salary. Currently, new teachers can bring in as many as 26 years, which is the top of the salary schedule, Vitalo said.
"That's a huge savings" in the longer term and doesn't impact current employees, he said.
There's another sticking point, though. Vitalo he said he's not convinced the overall shortfall is as big as officials are projecting, and questions how the district arrived at its projected general fund reserve.
Martin assured him that the numbers were correct, but Vitalo agreed to meet with chief financial officer Desiree Henager to confirm the gap before the two sides meet again on June 23.
The School Board will meet for its second budget workshop two days before that. At the last workshop, board members gave initial approval to ideas that will affect students and families, such as cutting bus service to students who live within 2 miles of school and imposing sports and activity fees. They also said they would be willing to take about $1.4 million from the district's $4.2 million in available reserves.
Schools on average have cut about 10 percent of their staffing allocations, which is translating to losses of electives and driver's education classes.
Administrators at the school and district level will lose five paid holidays. Superintendent Bryan Blavatt has agreed to reduce his contract by five days, and board members have indicated they're willing to make the same sacrifice.
As talks came to a close Wednesday afternoon, Winding Waters K-8 principal and district bargaining team member Dave Dannemiller noted that administrators have not had a raise in two years and are losing the paid holidays, too.
"You're not alone in that," Dannemiller told the union team. "I hope that's communicated out there."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]