The Pinellas teachers union is rejecting a district proposal for furloughs, saying Thursday that teachers have already borne a disproportionate share of recent budget cuts and that the district can find money elsewhere.
"I don't believe our members have seen the equivalent pain as other units," union president Kim Black said during a collective bargaining session with district officials. "We cannot seriously consider unpaid leaves."
If the district wants to stick with furloughs, it will have to force them on its employees, Black said. "Anything like that will have to be imposed," she said.
The district formally proposed $7.8 million worth of furloughs Thursday as part of a broader effort to cut $26 million from next year's budget.
The first of two budget hearings is set for July 27. The union will present a counterproposal July 26.
Under the district plan, most of Pinellas' 8,400 teachers — those on 10-month contracts — would be forced to take three days of unpaid leave. About 230 who work 11.5- and 12-month contracts would be forced to take four days.
Most central office administrators, including superintendent Julie Janssen and her top staff, would be furloughed nine days.
"There is nothing easy about this for the (school) board," said Steve Swartzel, the district's chief negotiator. But "one of the reasons you look at unpaid leaves is to save jobs."
The union wants the district to dip into its "cliff reserve," a $12.2 million fund it created to soften the blow when federal stimulus money runs out next year. But most board members say doing so would be irresponsible, given a deficit for the 2011-12 budget that is estimated at $54 million.
"I would love for us not to have to do mandatory unpaid leave," said board member Carol Cook. "But I also know we need to make sure we're being fiscally responsible so next year we're not laying off people because of the $54 million in cuts."
Both sides discussed three other potential cuts Thursday: shifting a greater share of health insurance costs to employees; putting 200 to 300 new teachers on cheaper "provisional" contracts for the first 97 days on the job; and starting an early retirement plan for employees with more than 25 years on the job.
The union leaders indicated there was room for compromise on all of them.
The district has put new hires on provisional contracts four times in the past 20 years, Swartzel said.
Under the most recent proposal, new teachers would be paid $100 a day for the first 97 days. A first-year teacher would normally make $186 a day, while more veteran teachers joining the district or returning to it would earn more. Potential savings: $2.5 million.
The savings would rise if veteran teachers, principals and assistant principals take advantage of a new early retirement plan.
The district would pay participants $8,000 a year for the next three years, beginning in September. For the most part, those employees could only be replaced by new staffers with eight or fewer years of experience.
Union executive director Marshall Ogletree suggested the district's offer wasn't sweet enough.
"I think it needs to be at lest $10,000 a year or very close to that," he said.
If the district and the union don't come to an agreement on furloughs, either side could declare an impasse, which could lead to the appointment of a mediator or a special magistrate.
The magistrate would make a recommendation to the School Board. But under Florida law, the board can still make the decision.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.