Pinellas County school officials and the teachers union have tentatively agreed to end school early every Wednesday, starting in the fall, to provide teachers with dedicated planning time.
If the plan is ratified by the teachers and approved by the School Board, all students would be released one hour early to give teachers planning time that will be "uninterrupted, unscheduled and utilized at the discretion of the teacher."
The move is an attempt to make up for the loss of teacher planning time caused by additional state and federal mandates, according to union president Kim Black.
The "early release day" is among the working conditions the district and the union agreed to late Thursday after 18 months of negotiations. The two entities will continue to negotiate salaries and insurance. Pay cuts remain on the table.
School Board Chairwoman Peggy O'Shea said she is glad the district and the union have reached a tentative agreement while schools have plenty of time to plan their schedules for next year. She said the early release every Wednesday should pose no major problems for parents.
"Schools have done this in the past," O'Shea said. "Some parents liked it because it gave them a chance to schedule appointments for their kids on that day."
Instruction time will not be lost because the minutes will be redistributed throughout the week, making the other four school days slightly longer for students.
Faculty representatives will hold meetings at schools early next week to present the contract changes and to answer questions. Teachers are scheduled to vote May 20 on the new working conditions portion of the contract. The results of the salary and insurance negotiations will be presented to teachers for a vote at a later date.
Throughout the bargaining process, the union's focus has been avoiding layoffs, Black said.
"It was important to end the school year protecting our working conditions while we are still negotiating our salary," she said. "But with the district proposing six days of furloughs, there was no way we could in good conscience recommend anything to the membership that includes pay cuts."
Under the terms of the tentative agreement, middle and high school teachers will work six out of seven periods. The seven-period day became a sore point in the summer when the School Board voted to lengthen the middle school day by 14 minutes and add an additional period without paying the teachers more money.
An arbitrator ruled in November that the change violated the teachers' contract. The union filed a lawsuit asking the court to uphold the arbitrator's order, resulting in a $1.1 million settlement for the middle school teachers. They continued teaching six out of seven periods because it was too late to change students' schedules.
While the decision to agree to the schedule change was uncomfortable for the faculty reps, Black said, they understand that the district is in the midst of a financial crisis.
Other contract highlights include language requiring the School Board to reopen salary, benefits and workload negotiations if and when the state funding situation improves; and allowing teachers to share sick leave days with family members who also are school employees.