LAND O'LAKES — The mediation failed.
For eight hours Thursday, a federal mediator shuttled between representatives of the Pasco school district and the United School Employees of Pasco. The stated goal was to find common ground between the sides on the contentious issue of pay and benefits.
In the end, no one budged.
"We didn't come to any agreement," said Terry Rhum, the administration's lead negotiator.
USEP president Lynne Webb said she had hoped at least to reach a deal on health benefits, which the School Board has pledged to cover for employees. But even that proved a non-starter.
"It was very clear to the union team that the district was not willing to look at any of the individual items and at least try to clear some of them," Webb said. "We're going to move forward with the magistrate hearing."
The association sent a request for a hearing officer to the Public Employees Relations Commission on Friday. It also began preparing to file a class-action grievance against the administration for not paying $100 perfect-attendance bonuses to 302 bus drivers and assistants at the end of the first quarter.
That bonus is part of the 2007-08 contract, which Webb contends remains in force until a new agreement is reached.
"The district is acting as if that language is not in effect," she said.
Other complaints and grievances could be in the offing, Webb added, though she refused to offer any specifics. She said the USEP team wanted to wait until after the board's Dec. 1 budget workshop to ensure it has the most current financial data.
The board plans to set spending priorities at the workshop. It faces additional revenue cuts of up to $16-million.
Rhum said the administration would answer any financial questions the employees present in order to clarify the situation. But the financial picture remains clear to the district negotiating team, he added, and it's not good.
School Board vice chairman Allen Altman expressed disappointment that the economy continues to sour to the point where the district has few good options.
"Obviously, I would love to see the budget be in the condition where we could take care of our employees and continue to educate kids," Altman said. "Unfortunately, a great deal of that is beyond our control. … And the situation that we're facing in Pasco County is not unique."
Board member Kathryn Starkey agreed that the state's financial reality leaves no room for added pay.
"I'm not even sure about the number of employees we'll have at the end of the year," Starkey said. "Unfortunately, the district cannot print its own money. … I think we have to start getting into programs and people. That's where we go next. It's horrible."
A date for a special hearing magistrate to hear both sides present their case has not been set. They could meet again for talks before then to try to reach an agreement, but no one considered that a likely scenario.
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.