BROOKSVILLE — Teachers and the Hernando County School Board were far apart Monday in their first proposals on a contract for the coming school year.
The school district said it could afford to offer teachers only a seniority-based "step increase" in their current contract, a 1.14 percent average gain, given the troubled economy and uncertainty over how many state-funded students will enroll in August.
But the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association said its members deserved a 5.5 percent increase, just like the one superintendent Wayne Alexander got last month.
"What we hear from our teachers is they really feel they deserve a 5.5 percent increase because the superintendent got it. The board gave it to him," lead negotiator Steve Stora said. "Our proposal was very reasonable. We did not come in asking for 14 percent."
That larger figure, Alexander's opening bid, came as a shock to teachers and board members alike when he made it last April. Board member Jim Malcolm, who voted against any raise, predicted that an early increase for the superintendent would set the tone for salary talks with teachers.
Despite those differences, negotiators on both sides struck a conciliatory tone at Monday's session, talking about contract language and a union proposal to compress the 28 steps in the current salary scale to a more manageable 16.
Union officials said their 5.5 percent proposal could end up costing the district no more money than the $75.9-million it set aside last year for teacher salaries, if an expected enrollment increase of about 340 students fails to materialize.
But district negotiators said the new, compressed salary schedule could bring unexpected costs in future years.
"We have to make sure we can afford the salary schedule each year," said Heather Martin, executive director of business services.
"It will definitely be less than the cost of living," union president Joe Vitalo countered.
Speaking after the meeting, Vitalo acknowledged that it's a tough time for the School Board to fulfill its goal of closing the pay gap between Hernando and neighboring counties.
"We understand it's a tough economy out there right now," he added. "But when you can't take care of your family at home, how effective are you going to be in the classroom?"
Alexander said it was a "reasonable expectation" that the district would see enrollment gains and the extra per-student funding this August. Until those numbers are known, the district won't know exactly how much it has for teacher salaries.
But he said the teachers have the right to ask for as much money as they believe they deserve.
"Just like the superintendent, they have the right to start negotiating wherever they want," Alexander said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.