LAND O'LAKES — They've already sparred publicly for weeks over pay.
Now Pasco County schoolteachers and the administration have begun formal talks about what they're going to do about their disagreements.
Representatives for each side sat down Tuesday to lay the ground rules for contract negotiations that leaders expect to be the toughest in years. The key issue remains money.
"Economics is on everyone's mind," said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco.
"That's what we're going to focus on."
Webb expressed hope that the negotiators would reach agreement on benefits and raises based on years of service, or steps, before employees return to work in August. The district has asked both teachers and school-related personnel to delay taking their steps, which otherwise take effect next week on Tuesday.
The union rejected the request in May, when it first came up, and hundreds of teachers protested the idea by wearing black on the last day of classes in June. The district has again raised the question during negotiations, and Webb said she expected to respond by Wednesday.
Employee relations director Terry Rhum, the district's lead negotiator, said the administration and School Board must balance the budget even as the state reduces student and program funding. Superintendent Heather Fiorentino has proposed $16-million in cuts, and has suggested more might be necessary.
During negotiations, the sides will discuss everything that goes into employee costs, the largest portion of the operating budget, Rhum said.
"Wages are one thing, and the step is part of that. ... Health insurance is another consideration, and also staffing levels are a consideration," he said. "We're just going to have to figure out what is possible."
Fiorentino has said one alternative is increasing the amount employees pay for benefits — especially if the union doesn't budge on steps. Already, the district is facing higher than expected rate hikes for health insurance, which officials have said they do not want to pass along to the workers.
The district finance department has estimated that the board could generate $12.1-million by increasing employees' contribution to benefits by $100 a month.
Both Rhum and Webb said the idea of having teachers teach more time each day, as other districts including Hillsborough have done, is not likely.
Webb said, "I'm certainly hoping we're not [negotiating] until November, like last year."
But she wasn't overly optimistic after preliminary talks with district officials including Rhum, who said the talks could take time.
"We're not close yet on salaries," he said. "It may be months, and it probably will be."
Teachers return to work on Aug. 11. Classes begin Aug. 18.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.