Pinellas County teachers get raises, give up early-release Wednesday

After months of stalled salary negotiations, the Pinellas County School District has reached a tentative agreement with the teachers union that would give teachers a pay raise and put an end to early-release Wednesday a year from now.

The pay bumps, which are based on years of experience, will range from $300 to $5,000, with most of the district's 7,800 teachers on the low end. The increases are effective Nov. 1.

The agreement comes two weeks into the new school year and after what union leaders termed the longest period of negotiations in the district's history. Pinellas was the last school district in the Tampa Bay area to settle its contract.

In Hillsborough County, teachers got experience-based raises and a cost-of-living boost, costing that district about $29 million. Pasco County's teachers received no raise and took furlough days, while Hernando County's teachers gave up some pay raises to preserve teachers' jobs.

The tentative contract in Pinellas still must be ratified by the union and approved by the School Board.

Pay raises in Pinellas County will cost the district about $6 million this year, something superintendent John Stewart said was possible because of changes to the district's health insurance. Instead of one employee plan, there now are three, which will save the district about $12 million over two years.

Some employees will pay more out-of-pocket costs for health insurance, while others could save money.

Both sides professed relief Thursday that the protracted negotiations were at an end.

"It's a significant place to be. It took a long time to get here," said Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

Stewart said he was "extremely happy" to reach an agreement.

"Everything that's good is worth waiting for," he quipped.

Board member Glenton Gilzean called it a "great week for our teachers."

"We're going in the right direction and I'm excited about it," he said.

The biggest compromise in the agreement is the end of early-release Wednesday, Ogletree said.

The practice, started about two years ago, gives teachers more planning time by closing schools about an hour early on Wednesdays. It has been popular with teachers, but less so with parents. Working parents have complained that it's difficult to arrange child care.

The Pinellas Education Foundation, a business-led nonprofit, has advocated an end to early-release Wednesday and using health insurance changes to pay teachers more. Jim Myers, chairman of the foundation, called the agreement "great news."

"Teachers came away with something positive and so did the parents," he said.

It's difficult to know how much benefit the average teacher will see from the pay bump.

Many teachers complained last year that other cuts took a bite out of their salaries, with some actually losing money because of increased health costs and fluctuations in local property tax revenues, which became tied to teacher salaries in 2005.

The average teacher in Pinellas earned about $45,837 in 2010-2011, the most recent school year available from the state. That puts Pinellas at 17th among the 67 districts for average salary.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com, (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

Pinellas County teachers get raises, give up early-release Wednesday 08/30/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 30, 2012 9:51pm]

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