LAND O'LAKES — As they prepare for their students to arrive next week, Pasco school teachers face the prospect of a second straight year without a raise.
Some are talking about working only their contracted hours, and not donating extra time to school. Some say they won't be spending as much of their own money on classroom supplies as in the past.
A number of them have e-mailed their School Board members expressing their displeasure on the suspension of step raises, which are based on years of service.
"The teachers are saying they've earned a raise and they've earned a step," said board member Kathryn Starkey, who received close to 40 e-mails. "I would absolutely agree. … The issue is, is there money in the budget that can cover raises and/or step increases?"
District administrators aren't so sure. The cost of health insurance and retirement contributions are rising, they note, and it remains unclear whether the Florida Legislature will take back some of the state funding that the district has been allocated, as occurred a few times last year.
"Salaries can't be established in isolation from those other items," said Kevin Shibley, the district's lead negotiator for teacher contracts.
He did not expect a resolution on teacher pay any time soon, particularly not before school resumes on Monday.
That's what the United School Employees of Pasco had asked for back in June, when it agreed to delay payment of employees' annual step increases. And it's what USEP president Lynne Webb requested on Tuesday when she spoke before the School Board.
Webb observed that the district had set aside $9 million, just in case the state takes some money back. Yet state revenue estimates are not as bad as initially expected, she said, and signals indicate that no fall special legislative session is in the works.
"It's important that the board recognize that our employees made great sacrifices … to keep this district on sound footing and to ensure that our students didn't feel the pinch," she said. "They cannot go another year without step increases, and they should not have to wait."
Board member Joanne Hurley, who received about 80 e-mails on the topic, said she felt conflicted about the issue.
"I would love to do it," Hurley said of paying steps and raises. "But I simply have to wait until I have all the (budget) information that I need. … It's my fear that anything we would do now would simply have to be undone later."
Pasco's property appraiser has told the district to expect lower assessed values again next year, which would translate into less tax revenue. Meanwhile, the federal stimulus funding that the district is getting — about $20 million a year — is filled with strings binding its use, plus it goes away in two years.
"We've got to do something that we can sustain from year to year," said board chairman Frank Parker, who also received about 80 e-mails from district employees. "We're getting caught in a web here. Unless something changes in the next year or two, the picture gets uglier."
The district wants to maintain benefits for workers, and to have the only job losses occur through attrition, not layoffs, he said. A knee-jerk reaction today could lead to trouble tomorrow, Parker said.
With so many questions unresolved, the School Board has yet to make a final call on raises and steps. Meanwhile, Shibley said, the discussion remains on the table, as the USEP representatives requested.
The sides resume negotiations this afternoon, with the likelihood of an immediate deal virtually nil.
"Are we going to settle the contract tomorrow?" Shibley said Wednesday. "I don't believe that's going to occur."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.