LARGO — The Pinellas School Board ratified the working portion of a new teacher contract Tuesday, agreeing by a narrow margin to end the school day early every Wednesday beginning in August to provide teachers with dedicated planning time.
The 4-3 vote also ensured that middle and high school teachers will be required to prepare no more than two sets of lesson plans for their students in the coming school year.
Both issues sharply divided board members, who spent more than an hour weighing the pros and cons of voting against superintendent Julie Janssen's recommendation to ratify the contract.
Several questioned the benefit of the added teacher planning time when weighed against the inconvenience to parents of an early release day. Others feared that limiting the number of classes a teacher must prepare could require the district to hire more teachers.
But board member Linda Lerner said it was important to reach agreement on the contract before the school year ended to avoid the problems that arose last year when teachers left for the summer unsure of their status.
"If we do not approve this contract, it goes back to bargaining," Lerner said. "I know it's not a perfect agreement, but I hope we can work together to improve it if necessary."
Board member Janet Clark disagreed.
"The time to make the contract right is before it's signed," Clark said. "I'm sorry there has been work that's gone into this, but we can't just jump into it without making sure all the i's are dotted and all the t's are crossed."
Board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea expressed concern that parents weren't brought in on the discussion regarding the early-release day.
"We've gotten quite a bit of feedback on it, and I've yet to find somebody who wants it, including teachers," she said. "There are concerns that there has not been a meeting of the minds."
O'Shea criticized union officials for adding clauses at the last minute and for not communicating properly with their membership.
"This was just poorly done," she said.
But O'Shea voted for the contract in the end, along with Lerner and board members Mary Brown and Robin Wikle.
Clark and board members Carol Cook and Nina Hayden voted against the contract.
School officials and the teachers union reached a tentative agreement on the contract May 8 after 18 months of negotiations. The teachers ratified the contract last week.
Under the terms of the agreement, middle and high school teachers will work six out of seven periods each day. In return, teachers will get an extra hour of planning time on Wednesdays when students are dismissed an hour early.
Union president Kim Black said after the vote that she hadn't expected unanimous approval, even though the contract had been collectively bargained with the district.
"I'm not surprised they had the back and forth, but we have to move forward as a district," Black said. "This is certainly a step in the right direction."
In other business, the board approved new start times for high schools, pushing the opening bell from 7:05 a.m. to 7:15 a.m. Most middle schools will begin at 9:40 a.m., two minutes later. Elementary school times will change only slightly except in a few cases, where the day will begin an hour later.
District officials say the changes are being made in an ongoing effort to reduce transportation costs.