TAMPA — There was one thing school district and teachers union negotiators could agree on Tuesday as annual contract talks got under way in Hillsborough County: It could be worse.
While neighboring districts are facing teacher layoffs and furloughs amid historic state funding cuts, officials here have narrowed their own shortfall to just $4.4 million in the $1.7 billion operating budget. For now, at least, everyone's job is safe.
But whether that relative security leaves any room for pay raises or other concessions was an open question as the two sides sketched out their opening positions.
Finance director Gretchen Saunders focused on the state funding cuts, more than $100 million this year alone, and all of the ways the budgetary picture might worsen. More money will be needed for instructional materials, and costs for fuel and school security have risen.
"We'll be lucky if we hold steady, just because of all the cuts," she said.
Teachers union officials were reluctant to agree, asking pointed questions about Hillsborough's reserve and grant funds.
"Where are the Gates funds?" asked executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, referring to a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"It's a separate checkbook," Saunders replied, adding that the money would be spread out over seven years. "It's only about $14 million a year. Our monthly (payroll) in Hillsborough County is about $90 million."
Union president Jean Clements asked for a full accounting of the district's reserves, and not just the $95 million contingency fund set aside for hurricanes and other emergencies. In 2009, Hillsborough had $295.4 million in its unreserved fund balance, more than any district in the state, though officials said much of it was spoken for.
Deputy superintendent Dan Valdez said it would be a mistake to tap into emergency funds for things like pay increases, which permanently raise the district's costs.
"You're going to get into trouble, sooner or later," he said.
But union officials said their members have made plenty of sacrifices in recent years, such as teaching an additional class period in middle and high schools, to help the district slash its expenses during the recession.
"The money is being spent more wisely here, and has been for years," Clements said. "That also gives me confidence that we can walk away from this table in a matter of weeks with some sort of agreement that is beneficial to the employees."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.