For nearly three months, furloughs looked possible. For three weeks, they looked inevitable.
Monday, they were gone.
As expected, the Pinellas school district and its teachers union formally yanked furloughs off the negotiating table, hot on the heels of superintendent Julie Janssen's Friday stunner that the budget was $8 million less bleak than projected.
For teachers, it got even better.
District negotiators agreed to nix a plan to sign new teachers to cheaper, $100-a-day, provisional contracts, and to support a union counter offer to give every teacher a $250 training supplement. Both sides also agreed to shift slightly more health insurance cost to workers, but for most the change will be minimal.
"In these times, it's a good solid settlement," said teachers union president Kim Black.
District officials said the savings from the provisional contracts (about $2.5 million) would be offset by a plan, also tentatively okayed Monday, to offer senior employees $27,000 to retire early. As for the training supplement (about $2.1 million), they suggested that with a nearly $900 million operating budget, they were close enough.
"We'll tighten our belts. We'll get there," said Janssen, who briefly joined the bargaining session after both sides had haggled for five hours.
The parties are expected to sign the tentative agreement today. It must still be approved by a majority of teachers and the School Board.
The late improvement in the district's deficit has spawned skepticism. But chief financial officer Fred Matz said the district could not have updated its publicly presented budget projections more often without creating an even more hectic process.
The final numbers, tallied last week, turned out to be less dire than the projections in the budget model. Those were based on March figures. The numbers got worse in April before improving slightly in May, Matz said.
"To go in and change the cut figure every month — 'oh, we're $800,000 better, we don't have to cut $800,000' — it's chaotic enough," he said. "You have to have something consistent to make decisions."
Some teachers are suspicious of how the district's bottom line turned rosier, said Joan Procida, a reading coach at Pinellas Park Elementary and member of the union bargaining team. More of them are just happy they found the money, period.
With no layoffs and no furloughs, "it'll be a relief," she said.
The district hopes to secure grant money to cover the training supplement, Matz said. If it can't, "I think we'll have to hit a reserve," he said.
More specifically, he said, it's likely to be the district's $12.2 million "cliff reserve," which it has built up to offset the $54 million deficit that's expected after federal stimulus funds dry up. Most school board members said they did not favor dipping into that pot to stave off furloughs, but it's unclear how they might view its use for other plans.
Monday's tentative changes will not affect the pay raises — from $300 to $5,300 — that teachers were already slated to get this year. (That raise is offset by a $168 drop in salary due to falling revenue from a voter-approved property tax hike.)
The sunny finish to the negotiations marked a turnaround from the first bargaining session on July 15, where union leaders coldly swatted down the furlough idea. But there were a few tense moments.
At one point, it became clear that the district had formally proposed furloughs to the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and the Pinellas Education Support Personnel Association, but not to the unions that represent blue-collar workers and police.
Then there was this unlikely bargaining chip: With the district and union close on most issues, district negotiator Steve Swartzel floated the idea of amending the contract so 60 percent of teachers would be needed to change a school's schedule, instead of the current 75 percent. "One little change," he called it.
"Nope," Black said.
When Swartzel and the district team returned to the conference room, Janssen was with them. And the proposal on schedule approvals was dead.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.