LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County school district employees will face fewer furlough days than initially expected.
Teachers and other employees who work only during the school year will get two days of unpaid leave instead of three. Administrators and other 12-month workers will get three days instead of four.
The numbers could shrink further if the district realizes any other savings as the year goes on.
The reduction in furlough days became possible because the district's health insurance costs did not rise as high as expected.
The School Board budgeted $2.5 million for premium increases. But when the final package came in, the actual increase was closer to half that amount.
As a result, the board met in executive session Thursday to reduce the number of mandatory unpaid leaves for administrators and other non-bargaining employees, such as secretaries, plant managers and accountants. Then it offered the United School Employees of Pasco a new proposal to cut union members' furloughs, as well.
The district also proposed keeping salaries unchanged, without raises or step increases for years of service, and continuing to pay employees' health insurance benefits.
The district has not given raises in four years.
After nearly three hours of negotiations Thursday night, union representatives accepted the deal, provided that at least one of the furlough days be a date when classes were supposed to be in session. Union leaders have said they want others in the community to feel the pinch of budget cuts that district employees have endured.
The union asked for the second day to also be a school day, but did not want two class days cut, employee relations director Kevin Shibley said.
"We are going to be looking at planning days that are built into contracts," he said.
In the end, the employee bargaining team accepted the offer as the best it could get, union president Lynne Webb said.
"We will continue to monitor the budget," Webb said. If additional savings are realized in insurance, "it will go first toward reducing furloughs."
The sides sought an early settlement to this issue in order to keep furlough day payroll deductions, which are spread out over the year, as small as possible. This deal will allow the district to begin taking money from employees' first paychecks, due next week.
Deductions will be based on salary only; supplements teachers earn for added work will not be included, Webb said. A teacher who earns the entry-level rate of $36,420 will see his or her check shrink by $14.29 per pay period.
The furlough dates remain unscheduled. By agreement they must be decided by next Friday.
Webb acknowledged that the agreement, which still requires formal approval by the School Board and employees, is not ideal. She blamed lawmakers for not adequately funding public education, and also noted that Pasco voters rejected a local property tax option that could have raised an additional $5.5 million, about the amount needed to avoid furloughs.
The money also might have been found if the district required teachers to instruct six classes daily, taking away their planning period, she added. The School Board projected savings of $12 million from such a move — enough to cover the furloughs and also give step increases.
But the union fought that idea.
"Our teachers felt like the quality of their instructional life was worth something," Webb said. "I am proud of that. We really banded together."
Shibley predicted that the non-instructional contract will be complete soon, but the teacher contract will take longer. Issues relating to evaluations, accountability and related matters remain on the table for negotiations.
Webb figured the main discussions will center on evaluations, perhaps followed by an understanding to work through the rest of the matters throughout the year.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.