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School Board grapples with contract, pay issues

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino thought she had the whole thing worked out.

The school district had made errors over the years, leading to the overpayment of 17 employees and the underpayment of 26 others. The fairest solution, she determined, was to repay in full all the underpaid workers and limit the debt of those who had been overpaid.

"I think it's important that we be fair," Fiorentino told the School Board on Tuesday.

School Board members, however, were not quick to run with her solution.

Rather, they had concerns that the district's two separate contracts — one for teachers and one for noninstructional staff — provided different terms for the different types of workers.

Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey asked board lawyer Dennis Alfonso to chime in as to what the district can and cannot do. Alfonso replied that the contract language is "clear," but added that it could be "prudent" for the district to enter an agreement with the union to resolve this one-time problem.

Veteran board member Marge Whaley, who prefers to keep contract negotiations behind closed doors, suggested the board have an executive session to talk about the issue further.

Two of her colleagues, Frank Parker and Allen Altman, said they would like to let the union and superintendent try to come to an understanding first.

"Let it come to us if they can't reach agreement," Altman said.

Parker agreed, adding that all involved must acknowledge any deal is a "one-time thing" aimed at tackling this unusual circumstance, brought about because of a state-mandated wage audit that revealed mistakes that otherwise probably would have gone unnoticed.

But Parker and Altman both quickly acceded to the wishes of the other two members at the meeting, who said they felt more comfortable meeting with their lawyer privately to talk about the implications of their decision.

Alfonso said that would be appropriate because what the board ultimately decides will have wide-ranging implications for all employees, not just the 43 who have been overpaid or underpaid.

They set the session for 3 p.m. Thursday. Starkey took the time to remind Fiorentino to include Alfonso in legal issues coming to the board as soon as possible.

Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, told the board she had informally discussed negotiating a "memorandum of understanding" with the superintendent when the issues first arose. She said Fiorentino's recommendations seemed fair, based on the unusual nature of the situation.

Webb noted that the two contracts were negotiated separately, and that, in the past, the language about incorrect payments had been used without problem.

"Every year or so we find a couple of issues like that and we use the contract language very satisfactorily to resolve it," she said.

This is the first time in memory that longtime employees have had pay discrepancies emerge that were more than 2 years old, Webb added, saying she supports the superintendent's effort to treat all workers equitably.

Other districts have run into similar problems resulting from the state's requirement for a wage audit.

"A lot of other districts have been grappling with what to do," Alfonso told the board. "I can't say there's a clear consensus among school districts."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

>>At the meeting

Schools get kudos for environmental work

In other business Tuesday, the School Board:

• Recognized seven schools for their exemplary work with recycling. They were Cox Elementary, Rushe Middle, Wiregrass Ranch High, Moore Mickens Education Center, Wesley Chapel Elementary, Hudson Middle and Wesley Chapel High.

• Learned that errors had been made in calculating insurance costs, delaying a final recommendation to the board on purchasing employee health benefits.

• Received an annual report from the Pasco Education Foundation and honored outgoing president Larry Starnes for his service.

School Board grapples with contract, pay issues 08/05/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 10, 2008 10:06am]

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