LAND O'LAKES — After months of back and forth, Pasco County school district and teacher representatives reached a deal Monday that will refine performance evaluations.
Student test results won't count as much as they did before. But earning a top rating of "highly effective" will become more difficult.
"We were able to put into language what we hope is an achievable but yet fair representation for scoring those," said Gulf Middle School teacher Don Peace, a member of the United School Employees of Pasco negotiating team. "It will be tougher to be highly effective, but it should have a bit more meaning."
The agreement came as part of the district's larger contract talks, which concluded Monday morning with a tentative settlement. District and USEP leaders had pushed to have a deal in place by the time schools hold planning week Aug. 17.
Last year, contract talks proved more controversial, and dragged past winter break.
With the terms reached early this round, employees should see their raises — 3 percent for non-instructional staff and 1.5 percent, plus salary schedule steps, for teachers — in their Sept. 4 paychecks. The added amount would be rescinded only if the members do not approve the contract.
"We're thrilled to have this done early enough that people come back to work with a contract," district employee relations director Betsy Kuhn said.
Bus driver Lee Beville, a member of the USEP negotiating team, said the financial package is key for non-instructional workers. He liked that the deal provides across-the-board 3 percent increases, eliminating salary schedules in favor of ranges with no cap.
"This is a much more fair and equitable way of giving raises," Beville said, explaining that a committee will meet during the year to set the new pay ranges.
For the teachers, the priority was evaluations, USEP lead negotiator Val Smith said. It meant trying to meet district demands for lower percentages of "highly effective" teachers without creating huge numbers of ones rated as needing improvement or worse.
"We were able to create differentiation without upsetting the entire apple cart," Smith said.
Superintendent Kurt Browning has said the rating system under the old contract is out of whack because student test scores don't warrant the district having such a high percentage of "highly effective" teachers.
The contract would reduce the amount that student test results count from half a teacher's evaluation to 35 percent, as lawmakers allowed this year. The USEP at one point argued to keep the 50 percent level, but eased away from that position over time.
To qualify for a "highly effective" rating under the new contract, teachers would have to earn a higher score on classroom observations conducted by administrators, who rate teachers in 40 areas. On a 0 to 4 scale, they would have to earn at least 15 percent of 4's to gain the top mark.
In the past, they could have received no 4's, so long as they had a high enough percentage of 3's. As a result, more than 80 percent of the faculty receive the "highly effective" rating in 2013-14, the most recent available data.
"We do not want to have 95 percent of teachers at highly effective," said Kuhn, who initially proposed an even more stringent definition. "This is something we think will get us where we want to be. We don't want to harm teachers, either."
With a two-year agreement on evaluations, Smith said, the sides now have time to hash out more details about how to tie the results more closely to teacher growth and improvement.
The sides also agreed to a new voluntary sick leave donation program, in which employees can contribute to and make requests of a sick leave bank beyond the amount they have earned.
The contract remains subject to ratification by both employees and the School Board. Those votes are expected to come in September.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.