LAND O'LAKES — It's a deal.
Representatives from the Pasco County school district and the United School Employees of Pasco ended contract negotiations late Thursday with an agreement that would pay all district workers a supplement up to $850.
All employees would continue to receive fully paid health care benefits, and layoffs remain off the table. But for a second straight year, no one will get a raise or a step increase based on years of service.
"We wish it were better," district employee relations director Terry Rhum said of the contract, which still requires ratification by the association members and by the School Board. But with the state budget still grim, "We feel this is as good as we could do under the circumstances."
USEP president Lynne Webb said her organization pored over the district's finances in the week following the administration's proposal to pay either supplements or bonuses rather than add to salaries.
"It's not like we said, 'Let's just forget about that,' " Webb said. "We were continuing to explore means of putting dollars into the salary schedule. ... We could not identify enough recurring dollars to guarantee we'd be able to continue to pay the health insurance next year."
The district experienced a 14 percent increase in health insurance costs this year, totaling about $5.7 million. It expects to see a similar jump next year.
The cost of paying out the supplements, meanwhile, comes to about $5.6 million. The amount will not repeat next year, although it will count toward employees' retirement benefits.
Negotiators for all the bargaining teams concluded that the supplements, differentiated based on years of service and type of job, represented the best deal they could reach in the current economy.
They left the door open to come back to the table if the district's financial situation improves and it becomes possible to give people even more money. They also formally agreed to explore the idea of creating an early retirement annuity.
This summer, the School Board and administration considered offering early retirement incentives to decrease the payroll. Superintendent Heather Fiorentino ultimately recommended against the idea, though, saying the district had achieved its employment goals without it.
In order to become official, the contract agreement still requires a vote of the USEP membership and the School Board. The votes are tentatively to take place Nov. 17 for the board and Nov. 19 for the employees. If approved, the supplement checks would be delivered on Dec. 18.
Last year, the district did not give raises or pay any additional money to employees. Union members held protests. This year, Fiorentino and the board said they wanted to get everyone at least some extra pay this year.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For education news, visit blogs.tampabay.com/schools.