The clock is ticking.
School superintendent John Stewart told the Pinellas County School Board on Monday that it has less than two months to get four unions to agree to a dramatic change in health insurance or look elsewhere for budget cuts. So far, it doesn't look good.
"Based on what I've heard there's been very little progress made on either side," Stewart said.
Tensions were evident during Monday's workshop meeting. Ron Ciranna, assistant superintendent of human resources, said salary negotiations were about six months behind schedule. He said he'd been trying, without success, to meet with the teachers union for two weeks.
"That's not true," Kim Black, president of the teachers union, said from the audience.
Black said the unions received the insurance proposal three to four weeks ago and haven't had their questions answered. Representatives from all four bargaining groups said it was clear that the board hadn't heard the unions' counterproposal. "They are backing board members into a corner," Black said.
The proposed health insurance plan, presented to the School Board just last week, would dramatically increase out-of-pocket costs for employees. It has a $2,500 individual deductible and a $5,000 family deductible, while the current plan has no deductible at all.
The change could save the district about $20 million, some of which could be used for employee salaries and to fill budget holes.
Kevin Smith, assistant superintendent of budget and resource allocation, said Monday that the district faces a possible $14 million deficit, far higher than the $5 million hole discussed as recently as last week. Smith said projections for the shortfall in the $1.3 billion budget have been "tracking higher" since March and April.
Stewart said an agreement is needed by the July 24 board meeting.
If the unions don't agree to the insurance change, the district will need to look at other options, Stewart said. Board members also could impose the proposed insurance plan on employees if the two sides eventually declare an impasse in negotiations.
Some board members said Monday that they didn't have enough information.
"We can't do it based on what if. We need some numbers," said board member Peggy O'Shea.
There's not much time.
Ted Pafundi, director of risk management and insurance, said he needs to negotiate with multiple insurance companies for the best plan. The contract is estimated at $100 million. Last year, open enrollment was held during August and September.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.