LAND O'LAKES — No one celebrated after the United School Employees of Pasco and the School Board reached a tentative 2010-11 contract deal without raises on Monday.
"I know people are going to be very disappointed," USEP president Lynne Webb said Tuesday morning. "Who could be happy with a settlement like that? It's hard to be happy about maintaining the status quo."
Neither the district nor the employees could claim victory, School Board member Steve Luikart said.
"Is it what anybody really wants? No," board member Alison Crumbley said. "But considering the financial situation we are in, we had no choice."
The financial deal came after bargaining ground to a halt in November, with the USEP declaring that agreement appeared impossible. The sides turned to a special magistrate, who in late March encouraged representatives to look for a way to settle rather than wait for a recommended order.
With lawyers in tow, the chief negotiators met to seek a compromise. At the fore remained knowledge of the district's declining revenue and the direction that Florida lawmakers are headed regarding not only education funding (expect further cuts) but also other matters that impact contracts, such as new teacher evaluations.
They arrived at a conceptual agreement that then required the School Board's blessing before it could be formally offered. On Monday, the district officially put the points on the table. They included:
• Continuing all employees at 2008-09 pay rates, while giving them credit for service during 2010-11.
• Removing the proposal to mandate all secondary teachers instruct six periods daily for 2011-12, instead seeking volunteers who would be paid $2,500 for each semester they work an extra period.
• Offering a retirement incentive of 10 percent of an eligible employee's pay, up to $5,000, to retire during June, after their current work requirements end. Eligibility is tentatively defined as 25 years of service in the Florida Retirement System, including the past 10 years in Pasco schools.
• Setting new rules for retired teachers who wish to be rehired, giving them credit for seven years of service if from Pasco or five years of service if retired from elsewhere.
The USEP team accepted the deal, which next goes to members for ratification on May 12 before going to the board on May 17.
Land O'Lakes High history teacher Bob Marsh, who often criticizes the district for its policies and procedures, found little reason to fault the district in this offer.
"I think under the circumstances, it's the best we could get," said Marsh, who sits on the negotiating team. "I know a lot of people think there should be money. ... But in terms of the money that is actually there, I don't feel like the district is sand-bagging."
He supported the agreement that allows secondary teachers to avoid a forced additional class period, saying a sixth period would have been "hellish." If blame must be cast for the bleak agreement, Marsh said, it must go to lawmakers who are again cutting funding to public education while expanding the use of taxpayer money for private school options.
Lawmakers' actions played a key factor in the decision to settle the contract after 10 months of a "dig your feet in struggle just to stay where we were," Webb said.
A signed contract allows the USEP to maintain the status quo during 2011-12 negotiations, she said, even though Gov. Rick Scott already has signed into law new rules requiring performance-based pay and eliminating seniority as a criteria in layoffs. The Legislature cannot impose new rules on an existing employment agreement.
At the same time, Webb said, going to impasse was unlikely to yield results much different than the outcome at hand. Special magistrates in other districts, such as Manatee, have generally ruled against union financial demands, noting that districts cannot afford to do more even if they wish to.
District employee relations director Kevin Shibley agreed.
"When you go to impasse you're putting the matter into a third-party's hands," he said. "Both sides risk getting what they don't really want or can't live with."
He stressed that the most important outcome of the agreement is that the district and USEP can now focus on the coming year, which bodes difficult times. The district's finance team projects a $60 million budget shortfall for 2011-12, which means hard choices lie ahead.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino has already said she expects to lay off employees and furlough those who remain, among several strategies to cut spending. Webb and Shibley said they hoped some of the pending contract deal, such as the retirement incentive and the voluntary teaching of a sixth period, will help limit the number of people who lose their jobs.
Both expected to begin talking about the 2011-12 contract as soon as the Legislature ends its current session in early May.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.