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Hernando schools pay deal on track with increased health care benefits

BROOKSVILLE — In era of tight belts and tense negotiations between unions and government, Hernando County's teachers and school workers are headed for a contract after a relatively smooth path to compromise.

"Both parties are victims of outside groups, Tallahassee and the health insurance companies, so instead of beating each other up we looked at what we could do to overcome other groups' stupidities,'' said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.

The teachers union asked for, but did not insist upon, a raise this year on top of an automatic salary bump based on experience. These step increases, which according to the union range roughly from 1.25 to 3.5 percent, were built into last year's contract and take effect at the beginning of every school year.

As part of the contract up for School Board review Tuesday, teachers are getting a sixth paid holiday. They won't have to show up to the last day of post-school.

The only major sticking point had been insurance costs. Blue Cross Blue Shield this year hit the district with a 14 percent hike in premiums. The board offered to increase its share for every employee; the union wanted the board to pay a little more for employees on family plans.

The board declined to do so, but did agree to contribute even more to each employee. The district will contribute $503.42 per employee per month. That's $6.92 more per month than the board first offered and $61.92 more than last year.

The non-instructional employees would get the same health care deal.

Help with insurance was more important than a raise, said Vitalo, adding that teachers recognize that given the continued trend of decreasing revenue, the school district can't give both.

"We understand the uncertainties that may be coming from the state and the need to prepare for next year with the new (high) school coming on line," he said.

Negotiations with the unions are tough when money is tight, said Heather Martin, the district's executive director of business services.

"However, we have a good relationship and we work together well," Martin said.

School Board member Sandra Nicholson said the district is offering as much as possible given the circumstances. She noted that some districts are not even giving step increases.

"Considering the economy and the money we're getting from the state, it's the best we can do," Nicholson said. "It's not what we would like to do, but it's the best we can do."

Last year, teachers got a 2.39 percent average salary increase, plus a 1.5 percent boost for health care premium increases. The district also agreed to increase the starting salary for a beginning teacher and reduce the number of salary steps so a move from one level to the next now means a bigger bump. The package cost the district about $2.2 million.

That helped Hernando climb in the ranks of average teacher salaries. After years of lingering in the low 60s among 67 districts, Hernando moved up to 53 as of March, according to Department of Education statistics.

The average salary in Hernando hit $41,795, with the statewide average at $46,950.

Many districts that did not give raises or step increases last year are providing more money for teacher contracts this year, Vitalo said.

"So I expect that this higher ranking will soon slip through our fingers and evaporate once other districts settle," he said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando schools pay deal on track with increased health care benefits 12/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 8:49pm]
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