LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County school district employees are about to get a day's pay back.
The School Board has notified the United School Employees of Pasco that it will reimburse workers for one of two furlough days they were forced to take, using the nearly $2 million it has saved in budgeted health insurance expenses this year.
"We are honoring the commitment that we made to our employees during (negotiations) at the beginning of the school year," district spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said.
The union agreed to accept two mandatory unpaid days off, with the caveat that if the district had leftover money at the end of the year, it would go back to the employees and not toward covering shortfalls projected for 2012-13. Workers then had their paychecks reduced to reflect those two unpaid days, which were Dec. 22 and April 2.
USEP leaders pressured the district and board to remain true to the agreement, especially after the insurance savings became evident. The School Board held a closed meeting in late April to discuss how to proceed.
"That money is money that is truly saved by the employees," USEP president Lynne Webb said. "We expect them to uphold the agreement."
Webb pointedly noted, though, that the refunds will be given only if teachers and school-related employees ratify their contracts. The vote is scheduled for May 17.
"If the contract is not ratified, the board will not reimburse employees, and items like fully-board paid insurance will be in jeopardy," she wrote in an alert to members. "Even the state-mandated teacher evaluation system will need to be renegotiated, and many of the hard-fought protections could be lost."
District employee relations director Kevin Shibley clarified that if the contract is not ratified, the furlough days will no longer exist.
"It would depend on what we come up with at the bargaining table," he said.
But the district's plan to reduce spending by $56 million, settled in part by these furlough days, would come back into play. It could mean reallocating the money in a different way, Shibley said. As an added concern, the state has warned districts that if they don't have a signed contract in place adopting new teacher evaluations, they will lose their remaining Race to the Top grant funds.
In Pasco's case, that amounts to $6 million.
Romagnoli said the furlough reimbursement does not necessarily signal that better financial times are ahead.
"We do still have a significant shortfall for next year," she said.
Pasco's school district has not given raises in four years. It eliminated hundreds of positions this year, with many temporary contract employees losing their jobs and not getting reemployed. A budget committee has begun meeting to look at possibilities for cutting spending and raising revenue.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.