Thursday, November 23, 2017
Education

Pasco school district plans to cancel furlough days

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LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco School District's more than 9,000 employees can forget about furloughs this year.

The district administration has found a way to save $3 million without forcing everyone to take two unpaid days off. Employee relations director Kevin Shibley revealed the plan late Wednesday during negotiations with the United School Employees of Pasco school-related personnel.

He planned to make a similar proposal to the USEP teachers representatives during bargaining on Thursday.

"The superintendent was extremely committed to finding a way to offset the furlough days this year," Shibley said.

The savings would come in four key areas:

• Using fuel tax reimbursements, about $900,000. The district receives this refund on its gas taxes every year, and can afford this year to put it toward avoiding furloughs, officials said.

• Shifting some Food and Nutrition Services costs from general operations to the FNS standalone budget, $1.5 million-$2 million. This would be a one-time measure, not a source of recurring savings, officials said.

• Ending the importing of sick leave for new hires from other state agencies and districts, affecting about 2,000 sick leave hours a year.

• Reducing by one month the paid health insurance benefits employees get when they leave the district, $150,000 in premiums plus an undetermined amount of claims.

"Those four things together we believe will generate enough savings to eliminate the furlough days," Shibley said.

The latter two items would require USEP approval. Union president Lynne Webb said she did not object to either.

The sick leave proposal makes sense, Webb said, because other agencies do not pay for the days that the employees carry with them into Pasco. Most other districts also have stopped allowing workers to import sick leave, as well.

"It was a liability we did not feel was fair to the employees who have spent their entire careers here in Pasco," Webb said.

She also supported the change to health insurance for departing employees, saying the USEP had recommended this reduction in past years as an area of potentially significant savings.

Under budget constraints, the school district originally planned to impose two furlough days this year, though neither day has been scheduled. The previous year, the district also planned two furlough days, then reimbursed workers for one of the days after saving more money than expected in health insurance expenses.

The USEP has consistently opposed furloughs, contending they were not needed and that savings could be found elsewhere. School Board member Steve Luikart, who voted against the current year budget on a similar premise, said he saw the new administration's steps toward resolving financial issues as a welcome change of pace.

"I am extremely pleased at the progress the superintendent and staff are putting into this," Luikart said. "We have instructed them to do everything they possibly can for our employees. They've taken a hit six years in a row. The new superintendent and staff understand that."

He added that other "positive steps" that he considered "very impressive" are in the works for employees. He did not offer specifics, saying that the details came out in closed session and still need to be negotiated.

Webb said she was encouraged the district had walked away from its previous strategy of bargaining from the extremes. She expressed hope that more positive results might arise going forward.

"Instead of coming out at negative zero, at least we're starting from ground zero," she said. "The union isn't asking for unrealistically high amounts we know are not available, and the district isn't coming in and asking for furloughs that we know are not necessary. I am hopeful we will see different budget priorities."

The USEP did ask for "retention supplements" for school related employees, money that would count toward workers' retirement pension and not be taxed as high as one-time bonuses. It is seeking similar supplements for teachers, too. It did not seek raises.

The district did not include money for supplements in its counter proposal, where it offered to remove furloughs from consideration. Shibley said he didn't consider a pay supplement likely, at least not for the current school year.

"If the board and superintendent had additional money to give, I think they would," Shibley said. "It's a huge win that we're even able to deal with the furlough days. What I put on the table is about as far as the board and superintendent are going to be able to go for this year."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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