A dispute over teacher salaries is bogging down contract talks between Pinellas schools and the teachers union.
Superintendent Julie Janssen declared an official impasse late Monday, which means the conflict is probably headed to a special magistrate.
At issue: Proposed cuts that would cost the average teacher $760 next year — after no raise last year.
"That's a difficult pill for any teacher to swallow," said union executive director Marshall Ogletree.
The district says it has no choice. In response to a historic shortfall in state education spending and dwindling enrollment, it has cut $37.5 million from next year's budget by closing schools, displacing 1,000 employees and making other unpopular changes.
"We're trying not to cut. We're trying not to lay people off," said School Board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea. "But we're at a point where there's nothing left to cut."
Pinellas isn't the only school district at loggerheads with its teachers over paychecks.
In the past year, districts and unions in a handful of Florida counties, including Pasco and Manatee, called in outside referees for salary talks. According to the Florida School Labor Relations Service, parties in another eight to 10 counties are still haggling over last year's contracts.
Other local governments are also in a bind. In Tampa last week, Mayor Pam Iorio declared an impasse with police, fire and general-employee unions.
Pinellas has 8,400 instructional employees, most of them classroom teachers. They earned a 4.9 percent raise in 2007, but no raise last year.
This year, the district is proposing two days of unpaid leave, which would save $4 million. It also plans to reduce every teacher's pay by $290 because of declining property tax collections.
Voters approved a tax increase in 2004 (and again in 2008) specifically for schools, 80 percent of which is for teacher salaries. But an 11 percent decrease in the tax roll has dragged down the revenue it produces.
The union has proposed one day off without pay to make up for that shortfall. But it's also pushing for small, annual increases in pay called "step increases." It says the total cost would be about $4 million.
"The average step is only $300," said union president Kim Black.
The union says the district's stance on the referendum money violates the contract. The district says the issue isn't subject to collective bargaining.
"I would say the relationship (with the district) is becoming increasingly strained," Black said.
Both sides say they want a salary deal by the time school begins Aug. 25.
The state Public Employees Relations Commission should appoint a special magistrate within several weeks, but the district and the union can continue negotiating in the meantime.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.