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School employees contract hit by economic reality

LAND O'LAKES — It might not include exactly what they hoped for, but Pasco school employees have a tentative contract agreement as they head into winter break.

The deal, which still requires approval by the union membership and the School Board, keeps pay rates the same as in 2007-08 while giving all employees credit for an added year of service. It also continues full health insurance coverage and establishes a committee for the administration and employees to communicate about budget issues in the future.

It's essentially what the district has offered all along.

"We're unhappy that the funding from the state is as short as it is and we were unable to secure steps and raises," United School Employees of Pasco negotiator Robert Benjamin said Tuesday evening after negotiations concluded. "But the economic reality is that would have been unreasonable at this point in time."

That economic reality was the focus of a School Board budget workshop that occurred Tuesday at the same time as the contract talks.

During that session, the board discussed plans to cope with current and expected revenue cuts. Board members quickly agreed with the administration's recommendations to slash $8.6-million in spending, reflecting a current shortfall.

Those ideas included canceling the purchase of new band and chorus uniforms, not filling up to 100 jobs that are expected to become vacant, and using participation fees to cover the cost of some spring sports rather than cutting them.

Board members had deeper concerns over plans to deal with the next set of projected cuts, which are expected to come in somewhere between $10-million and $15-million. Because the Florida Legislature has yet to determine the exact amount of budget cuts, the level remains unclear.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino told the board she did not want to make specific recommendations until the numbers are more firm. But as the board reviewed the ideas Fiorentino presented, such as delaying textbook purchases and slicing district-level department budgets, members found that the amount fell short of $15-million.

"Don't you think we need to add some more items for worst case scenario?" board member Joanne Hurley asked, a sentiment echoed by others on the board.

"This was the best we could identify through now," Chief Finance Officer Olga Swinson responded, adding that the staff is continuing to pore over budgets for more ideas.

Fiorentino told the board that she plans to work with lawmakers to suggest unfunded mandates they might eliminate during the upcoming special session. That might help reduce spending and free up more money, she noted.

She said she would bring an updated proposal to the board on Jan. 20. The board did not get into discussion on cuts for 2009-10, when it expects to see the budget slashed by another $40-million.

It was under such budget pressures that the contract negotiations occurred.

Union negotiator Jim Ciadella acknowledged that as the numbers worsened, the membership began to press for a less aggressive deal than the association's original push for raises and step increases for years of service.

"That's when we saw the tide turning … to 'let's keep our jobs and focus on our insurance,' " Ciadella said. "We hope that this settlement will help to preserve positions."

Rhum said the district aims to avoid layoffs as long as possible: "The superintendent and staff are working very hard to get the most out of our human resources that we can."

The board stressed that point frequently during its session. But Fiorentino noted that all bets are off next budget year if state revenue continues to worsen.

Negotiations had stalled over salary and benefits earlier this fall, as the sides could not reach an agreement.

A special master hearing had been planned for January.

Tuesday's negotiations represented what Rhum termed a "last ditch effort to reach an agreement" before that hearing. Union president Lynne Webb called the agreement "bittersweet," saying the deal was the least favorable employees had received in years, "But you can't squeeze blood from a turnip."

In other business, the Pasco School Board approved the appointment of Monica Ilse, current principal at Land O'Lakes High, as principal of Anclote High effective March 2. It also approved Jeffrey Scott Mitchell, principal of Centennial Elementary, as principal of Watergrass Elementary effective March 23.

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.

School employees contract hit by economic reality 12/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 19, 2008 3:18pm]
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