LAND O'LAKES — In e-mails, phone calls and speeches, dozens of Pasco County school employees have made clear their displeasure with a proposal to freeze their wages amid plans to cut $16-million in spending.
Times are tough, as Sunlake High reading coach Lauren Pantoja told School Board members in an e-mail. The freeze would hit her family particularly hard, Pantoja wrote, as her husband has lost his job and the cost of driving to and from work and groceries, as well as other living expenses, have increased. "We need and deserve our step increase."
Maybe so. But the school workers' insistence on receiving their raises even as they note in their own comments the sour economy of the county, state and nation in general has not gone over well in the community.
"It borders between irresponsibility, if you really understand what is going on, or it's naivete if you don't," said Allen Crumbley, co-owner of Prudential Tropical Realty in Trinity and a director of the Pasco Education Foundation. "While every other sector has to be fiscally responsible, here is the union that is asking for a raise in times that are very tenuous."
Crumbley noted that his companies, which employ about 700 people, have not given raises in more than two years and have reduced staff by 30 percent and overhead costs by 40 percent.
"I'm no different than any other businessman," said Crumbley, who has raised his concerns with School Board chairwoman Kathryn Starkey. "If someone came in to me for a raise in my company right now, it wouldn't be pretty."
Starkey said the general reaction she has received from non-school employees is that if they had their jobs guaranteed and their basic benefits fully paid — as the school district has proposed — they would not be complaining. Thing are tough all over, after all.
"While the public generally feels teachers are underpaid, I'm hearing from people they just don't understand how the teachers union is not understanding we're in a time of tough fiscal shortcomings and we all have to tighten our belts," she said.
Board member Allen Altman reported getting much the same commentary as he has made the Dade City rounds.
"The feedback that I have gotten in the restaurants and the grocery store … is that in today's economy, nobody is aware of any industry that has not had to suffer job losses or reductions in benefits," he said.
And the business community expects government to behave in a fiscally prudent manner with its tax dollars, said Steve Zahorian, president and CEO of Patriot Bank in Trinity.
"If we have to discipline ourselves and restrict ourselves … why wouldn't we expect our government and public education to realize the situation in a time of need?" Zahorian said, noting his bank has not filled all vacant jobs and has cut back its raises.
It can be tough not to sympathize with teachers, who should receive better pay for their work, said Tom Castriota, owner of Castriota Chevrolet in Hudson and also a member of the Pasco Education Foundation board of directors.
"But again, where is the economics?" Castriota wondered, noting that the rising cost of insurance, utilities and consumables has caused every business to make adjustments. "The School Board has only so much money. At some point, someone has to say there aren't enough dollars anymore. We have to keep the schools open."
He noted that his company has reduced its staff while increasing the work expected of those who remain.
"You have to sympathize with what (superintendent) Heather Fiorentino is trying to do to slash the budget, and how the School Board is trying to deal with it" without laying off anyone, Castriota said.
Crumbley agreed that the district is trying to make the best of a bad situation, and suggested employees should react in kind.
"Those of us who are responsible for writing a paycheck … have a responsibility for being frugal, and employees have a responsibility for being reasonable during tough times," he said.
United School Employees of Pasco negotiator Jim Ciadella said the union is fully aware of the current budget situation, but doesn't see raises as impossible.
"Everybody looks out for the best they can in their particular work environment," Ciadella said. "The union will work to do its best for its employees as, we believe, will the school district."
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.