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Hillsborough teachers, district still far apart on contract

TAMPA — Hillsborough County teachers and district negotiators remained far apart Friday in their quest for a new contract, five days after talks resumed.

The teachers union is sticking to its request for a 2 percent salary increase, while district negotiators speak of unpaid furloughs to stem a projected budget shortfall.

"We still have tremendous concern there will be a rollback of funds," said deputy superintendent Dan Valdez.

State funding could drop on its own, or an unexpected drop in enrollment could mean less per-student funding.

"We understand their position, and they understand ours," Valdez said. "But we're still hunting for $10 million."

Union officials say it's too soon to know whether state funding or enrollment will drop.

"I think we're the healthiest of all the larger districts in the state by far," said Jean Clements, referring to the size of Hillsborough's reserves. "Given that, we can't see any reason to have a furlough yet. If you need to talk to us late in the fall or December, fine."

As of June 2008, the district's unreserved fund stood at $338 million, or 22.6 percent of the general fund. Of that, officials said $92 million was a contingency fund for emergencies, and much of the remainder was earmarked for jobs and programs. But they acknowledged much of the fund could be redirected if necessary.

Furloughs — two days for teachers, and three for administrators and 12-month staff members — would save the district $11.3 million.

Just how big the district's deficit might be in the fall remains an open question, and a fast-changing one at that.

At the start of contract talks Monday, the district predicted it would be short by $21.6 million. By Wednesday, it had lowered that number to $10.9 million.

That nearly $11 million change came at the request of the union, which objected to the listing of voluntary programs such as a state merit pay program as an expense.

But it's also clear some of those voluntary programs, such as the school resource officer program, will likely need to be funded.

"The district and community seem to be pretty committed to continuing that," Clements said of the deputies-in-schools program. "But I don't know if we have more resource officers than we need."

As for salaries, the union said it was seeking to give members their regular step on the salary scale, a 2 percent increase.

"I very much understand," Valdez said. "That would be a standard expectation that they get their step increase."

Both sides hope to wrap up contract talks by the end of this month.

But Clements said it was possible such an agreement might include only non-financial items dealing with planning time and working conditions, leaving talks on salaries and furloughs until the fall.

"We could do that," she said.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Hillsborough teachers, district still far apart on contract 06/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 12, 2009 8:52pm]
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