Union, school talks hit a wall

BROOKSVILLE — Contract talks between the Hernando County School Board and the local teachers union have hit a wall over two paid holidays.

Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Joe Vitalo said Friday that the union will declare an impasse now that the board has refused to support the union's plan to pay teachers for one of the holidays and defer a decision on the second until next year.

Teachers work too hard and pay for too many supplies from their own pockets for the board to reject the proposal, Vitalo said.

"When we're on the front lines and making sacrifices, getting a full paycheck is a good way of saying thank you for your hard work," he said. "This isn't a pay raise. We've already earned this money."

The board doesn't think the district can afford it, Heather Martin, executive director of business services and the district's chief negotiator, told union officials Thursday. Martin had relayed the union's counteroffer during an executive session with School Board members last week.

"We all have to give a little," Vice Chairwoman Cynthia Moore told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday. "We all have to work together for what's best for the children. The district does not have the money."

During bargaining last summer, the union agreed to forfeit half of its annual automatic pay raise, which is built into its contract, for the current fiscal year. The concession, which saved the district about $1 million, came with the understanding that the forfeited half would be paid retroactively if the budget picture brightened later in the year. That didn't happen.

The union also agreed to give up the two unspecified paid holidays if the financial conditions were still dire later in the year. The two sides agreed in recent months to defer the decision, but now the end of the school year is near, and only a few pay periods remain.

During bargaining sessions held in recent weeks, Martin pointed to the district's dangerously low reserve fund as a prime indicator that the financial situation is, in fact, grim. Paying the district's roughly 1,700 teachers for two holidays would cost an estimated $800,000.

The union's latest offer was for teachers to be paid for Memorial Day. If the district is able to carry forward enough money into the next budget year, then employees who lost the second day and who are still on the payroll next year would be paid a day's worth of salary on one of their first paychecks. The district would not have to pay retirement benefits for the day, though, so that would save some money, Vitalo noted.

The board rejected that idea. To explain why, Martin on Thursday gave union officials a budget synopsis showing that the district will have an estimated reserve fund balance of $3.29 million, or 2.35 percent of estimated revenue, at the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

Districts are required by statute to keep the fund balance at levels of at least 2 percent of estimated revenue. If the figure falls below that, the district must give the state a fiscal recovery plan.

As of this week, the estimated shortfall for the 2012-13 budget year is nearly $5 million, according to the synopsis Martin provided.

The union noted that the district always carries forward some cash, and with that in mind, the union believes there is enough money to pay for the one holiday and defer the second.

"We know they have enough to pay one day without jeopardizing the reserve, and traditionally, quite a bit is carried over," Vitalo said.

Union officials are also frustrated by the district's failure to act on some of its cost-saving measures. Among them was the use of free software that automatically shuts down computers. That could have saved an estimated $250,000 had it been implemented around winter break, Vitalo said. Many teachers are already manually shutting down computers, which also results in savings.

Superintendent Bryan Blavatt declined to comment Friday, citing the impending impasse.

The union will fax formal impasse paperwork Monday to the district and the Public Employees Relations Commission. The parties can enter mediation, or one party can ask for a hearing before a special magistrate. Ultimately, the School Board would decide on how to impose a contract.

Other union talks in the county have stalled, too, and the reason is the same: money.

Last month, county officials and the Teamsters union declared an impasse because of two contract items, wages and health insurance premiums.

The county is also at an impasse with the union representing county firefighters.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Union, school talks hit a wall 04/27/12 [Last modified: Friday, April 27, 2012 9:34pm]

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