Pasco school district, employees reach contract agreement

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The raises for Pasco County school district employees aren’t as high as anyone would like, but they’re now part of a signed tentative contract deal reached just before 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

If ratified by the staff and the School Board, the agreements would provide teachers a 0.75 percent raise, divided evenly between a cost-of-living boost and an increase to the salary schedule. School-related personnel including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and teachers’ aides would get a 2.25 percent raise.

Both groups would receive an added $142 toward their district-paid health insurance. And teachers not eligible for the state’s Best and Brightest bonus program would receive a like amount from the district, paid from the proceeds of a land sale rather than from recurring revenue, as the board originally proposed.

Val Smith, the lead negotiator for the teachers’ bargaining unit, observed that the year came with significant restrictions on the available money, such as state limits on local tax rates and unexpected expenses from Hurricane Irma.

"That left us little to work with," Smith said. "We did the best we could with what we had. Hopefully, next year will be better."

District employee relations director Kathy Scalise echoed the sentiment.

"We wish would could be offering more," she said. "Based on what we have, we feel like this is in the best interest of all our employees."

The sides have been at the table for months, working to hash out a settlement that also included changes to the way teachers are evaluated.

Anticipating ultimate approval, the district offered to begin processing the pay increases as soon as employee W-2 tax forms are done -- even if the ratification vote is not finished. That became part of the final agreement, as well.

The sides have been at the table for months, working to hash out a settlement that also included changes to the way teachers are evaluated.

They began before the 2017-18 school year started. After a few meetings, the conversations stalled as union officials waited for the district’s financial report from the fiscal year that ended in June.

The School Board had included $3.3 million in its new budget for raises, but USEP leaders wanted to be sure that more wasn’t available.

When they returned to the table in October, the union made its first financial request, for 2.75 percent raises for school-related personnel and a smaller 0.875 percent cost-of-living raise for teachers, along with an added $142 per employee toward full health insurance benefits.

That ask looked too high for the district, which returned with a counter-offer that yielded a gasp and an "ouch" from union negotiator Val Smith. The sides were $2 million apart in their proposals, and divided over whether the amount should go fully to salaries or, as the district suggested, include a bonus for teachers ineligible for the state’s Best and Brightest bonus.

Over the ensuing month, the sides went back and forth, getting ever closer to numbers each could live with. They missed their goal to have an agreement before Thanksgiving, but held extra talks so they could have something to show before everyone leaves for the two-week winter break.

USEP officials huddled with administration leaders as late as Tuesday morning, aiming to hash out the final details.

The deal provides less added money than employees got a year ago, but comes with less acrimony than the 2016-17 contract. At this time in 2016, the USEP had declared talks to be at an impasse, kicking off a five-month hiatus in negotiations that required special magistrates to jump-start the process.

Scalise said she would inquire about getting the new deal before the School Board at its meeting on Tuesday. The USEP anticipates conducting its employee ballot in January or February.

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