LAND O'LAKES — Pasco school district employees head to the negotiating table this week hoping for better results than they got a year ago with the county's largest employer.
"We will do everything we can to protect jobs, maintain health insurance benefits and ensure we don't have a second year of zero increases" in pay, said Jim Ciadella, United School Employees of Pasco's lead negotiator for teachers. "It's going to be a challenge for everybody to come to terms on the financial picture."
Last year, the district administration focused its efforts on avoiding layoffs amid millions of dollars in funding cuts from the state. To do that, the School Board steadfastly refused to offer raises or contracted step increases based on years of service.
Workers protested by wearing black to school, rallying outside a board meeting and having a symbolic "walkout" at the end of their last day of the 2007-08 school year. In the end, though, the USEP relented and accepted the district's offer amid concerns that the alternative might be wide-scale layoffs.
Employee relations supervisor Kevin Shibley, who will lead the teacher talks for the district, expected the School Board to maintain its position of preserving jobs first.
"That's still our goal," Shibley said.
He acknowledged, though, that finances will remain the key concern for most of the district's nearly 10,000 employees.
"They want to know what the impact is going to be on their paychecks," Shibley said.
That answer won't come early. Representatives from both sides figured they would begin contract talks with smaller issues, and not get to the meaty matters for a few weeks.
The first meetings are slated to cover negotiating ground rules, then look over several memorandums of understanding that the sides must renew or delete annually.
Shibley said his team has asked the superintendent and her key staff, and also the School Board members, if there are any specific items they want to bring to the table for consideration.
"At this point, we don't have anything we will ask to reopen," he said.
Ciadella said the union already has requested to meet with the district finance staff to take a close look at the 2009-10 budget figures. Preliminary reports have the district receiving less money than a year ago, which could bode poorly for any hope of raises.
Early surveys of the staff indicate that morale is low, Ciadella said. The USEP will look for ways to improve that mood, both financially and otherwise, during the talks.
For instance, he said, the negotiators will seek a reduction in paperwork for employees.
"They still believe it's just overwhelming and there's no way to get it done during the course of the school day," Ciadella said. "These are additional burdens at a time where finances are what they are and pressures are what they are."
Bargaining for school-related personnel is scheduled to take place Mondays and Wednesdays until complete. Teacher negotiations are set for Tuesdays and Thursdays.
All talks will take place at the USEP office.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.