BROOKSVILLE — The local teachers union on Thursday offered to meet the school district somewhere near the middle to help bring back more than 100 teachers who have lost their jobs due to a budget shortfall.
During bargaining talks, negotiators for the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association agreed to forfeit two paid holidays and half of the automatic annual pay raise built into the union contract.
The two concessions would save nearly $2 million, which would save the jobs of roughly half of those teachers, said Heather Martin, executive director of business services.
Facing a $7 million shortfall, the district this week sent non-reappointment letters to 115 first-year teachers to save $3.6 million.
District officials had asked the union to forfeit the entire step raise and five paid holidays to save the full amount. Both sides agreed to reassess the budget in November to see if the first half of the step raise could be paid retroactively.
"We're making some good faith efforts on our part," said Jason Galitsky, chairman of the HCTA bargaining team.
But the union offered a host of other money-saving ideas including one novel approach: Lop off four days at the end of the school year, saving an estimated $3 million.
Teachers would still lose four paid days, but so would non-instructional employees, and there would be associated savings from reduced transportation and energy costs.
Teachers' sacrifice, then, would go farther, Galitsky said.
"That's where you're going to save the most money," he said.
Such a move requires School Board approval and presents a host of challenges, Martin said. Though the district might still meet the minimum number of hours of student instruction required by the state, shortening the year still requires approval from the Department of Education.
Perhaps more problematic, the union for non-instructional employees would have to agree. If not, the two sides could go to impasse, Martin said. The Hernando United School Workers have already refused to give up their step raise or paid holidays, and 47 bus drivers and attendants were not reappointed as a result.
"Certainly (the board) will be made aware of the suggestion, but it impacts way beyond this bargaining session," Martin said.
Galitsky asked that the district place the teachers in their same or similar positions. "We would feel more comfortable that we're fighting for the jobs that were vacated," he said.
Martin said the district would make every effort to do so but that it's not going to be possible in every case.
The union offered to pitch in toward an expected increase in health insurance premiums if roughly $674,000 in profit-sharing dollars from Blue Cross Blue Shield doesn't cover the entire hike.
Negotiators also suggested taking about $350,000 from the district's $4.2 million in reserves, bringing the balance to 2.75 percent of the general fund.
But the School Board this week expressed reluctance to take any money from the rainy day fund.
The union offered some suggestions that would provide some smaller savings, including one that will likely be met with an outcry from students and families: suspend the golf and tennis programs for a savings of at least $75,000.
Other counties have made the same move, union officials said.
To determine which teachers are called back, "We will look at the schools that lost the most positions and the most critical areas first," said Laurie Pellito, coordinator of human resources.
At least some of the teachers will be listed as reappointments on the board's June 30 agenda and notices could go out to employees in July, Martin said.
"We made a lot of progress today, so whatever I need to do to get them back as reappointments, I will," she said.
The agreements are tentative, however, because they require a vote by the HCTA membership. That won't happen until August, so if the district moves forward with reinstating teachers and the ratification fails, teachers could be laid off if the financial picture is still bleak, Martin said.
Galitsky called the bargaining session a good day's work but far from the end of efforts to find ways to help the board save money to get the rest of the teachers back.
"We're not content with just half," Galitsky said.
Negotiations resume next week. The board will review the tentative budget on July 26 at its first public hearing.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.