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Proposal postponing increases unpopular

Negotiations between the Pasco School Board and the employees' union have gotten off to a rocky start, as the board's first proposal for dealing with the budget shortfall faces rejection by the union. School Board negotiators last week proposed that the union agree to postpone "step increases" _ raises given to employees for gaining a year of service and moving up a step on the salary ladder. The increases are guaranteed by contract and are scheduled to start appearing in paychecks after the fiscal year begins on July 1.

But board negotiators warned that if there is not enough money in the budget, employees might be ordered to pay the money back.

"We requested that until a new salary schedule could be negotiated, we hold off on the steps because we might not have enough money to pay for that," said Jim Davis, the School Board's chief negotiator for the instructional employees.

Although there was no official response to the proposal last week, union president Steve Dubendorfer said Monday that it's very clear what the district's school employees want to do.

"The message is loud and clear: hold on to those steps," Dubendorfer said. In recent weeks, he has surveyed union members to see what they thought were the spending priorities for the school district this difficult budget year.

"They made it clear," he said. "Stand firm. The steps have been negotiated and should be paid."

Assistant Superintendent Chuck Rushe has estimated that it will cost about $2.7-million to pay for the step increases. The increases will be sizable for some employees; about 150 teachers on one of the top steps on the salary schedule can expect to get $4,000 increases this year.

The average teacher salary in Pasco is $27,230. Beginning teachers earn $21,300.

Dubendorfer said the larger step increases are long-anticipated rewards for employees, and that many employees make vacation plans in anticipation of the increases.

It's unclear what School Board negotiators will propose next for dealing with the shortfall. It appears that the benefits package is next up for detailed discussion.

Pasco faces a shortfall of approximately $8.3-million, if the district operates at the same level as it did this year, and pays the scheduled step increases, and pays the increases in the costs of benefits.

School officials have proposed several cost-cutting measures, such as limiting the sports schedule, having administrators forgo salary increases and eliminating some positions. The proposals could save about $3.7-million and enable the district to leave the classrooms virtually unaffected.

These cutbacks are in areas not covered by contracts. Cutbacks in other areas _ such as step increases and insurance benefits _ would have to be worked out at the negotiating table, unless the negotiations reach a dead end or the point of impasse. If that occurs, the School Board would have the final say on the contract.

Dubendorfer said he hoped the negotiations would not reach an impasse, and that the School Board would be able to cut more money out of the budget without backing away from its commitment to pay step increases.

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