The tentative agreement announced Wednesday between the Hillsborough County School District and the teachers union has enough to leave both sides happy. For the district, the deal shaves millions of dollars from a pay plan that was the basis of negotiations. For teachers, the deal is rich and back-loaded enough to preserve their clout in future salary talks. Both sides have also brought a protracted and divisive episode to an end just as the district ponders the idea of asking voters for more money. Whether it’s enough to fundamentally contribute to a brighter financial future for the district is another matter.
The sticking point to the deal was an existing pay plan that virtually guaranteed qualified teachers $4,000 raises every three years. The district held that its continuing struggle to balance the budget meant it could not afford the raises, and it sought a range of concessions that would lower the costs. That was the right strategy considering that salaries account for 81 percent of all the district’s spending, but the district did not win major concessions and the pay package would remain largely in place.
Under the proposed agreement announced Wednesday, about two-thirds of the district’s 15,000 teachers would receive $4,000 raises to take effect in October, rather than the normal start date of July. Experienced teachers at the top of the salary scale would receive a one-time payment of up to 2 percent of their pay. Teacher’s aides would receive increases of 6.25 percent, plus a one-time bonus of $150. The district would still pay the full cost of an employee’s health insurance premium, and would offer employees discounted rates on its after-school child care. The district would also stop paying performance bonuses to some employees who receive similar payments under a state-awarded program.
District officials said they have not estimated the total cost of the package, but compared to earlier projections it could save at least several million dollars up front. This is a modest cut for teachers, which partly reflects how local districts are forced to fill the gap because the Legislature fails to adequately fund public education. But it also speaks to how this district has been overly generous with the union in good times and bad. With the district facing $1 billion in debt from school construction, another $1 billion in deferred maintenance and more than $1 billion more in new school needs in the coming years, this was an opportunity for both sides to find greater savings for the sake of the bigger picture.
Superintendent Jeff Eakins has made headway in reducing staff levels, which a consultant noted last year were far higher than in peer districts across the state. By next year, the district’s employment count should stand at 24,355, down from 26,569 in 2015. That will be a significant help in reducing the district’s huge legacy costs. Eakins has also saved money by scrubbing contracts and taking other cost-cutting steps, which is essential for this agency to be viewed as more efficient in the public eye.
That image — and the support of teachers — will be critical if the district seeks to pursue a local referendum to increase revenue by raising the sales tax or property tax. School officials are exploring options, and the School Board is expected to more fully examine the idea later this year. Larger, urban districts, especially, face serious problems from the lack of state funding. That’s why every dollar committed at the local level needs to count. And it’s not entirely clear this district and the union are making a convincing case to Hillsborough voters.