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Teachers may add 6 percent

The negotiated pay raise for next year must be approved by the union and the School Board.

Hernando County teachers would get an average raise of 6 percent next year _ one of their biggest in 10 years _ under a tentative agreement union leaders made Wednesday with the school district.

The new deal sets the starting salary for first-year teachers with a bachelor's degree at $25,500 and the highest teaching wage in the district, for someone with a doctoral degree and at least 23 years' experience, at $44,900.

Every teacher will see at least $1,000 in new money. Some at the higher end will see more than $3,000. That includes the pay boost teachers get for adding another year of experience to their resumes.

Striking a deal by the third week of May is unusual in Hernando County, or anywhere else in Florida. The state Legislature, which has the most say in how much cash districts have to spend, just finished its budget two weeks ago. Though it's difficult to confirm, some of the negotiators in Brooksville speculated that Hernando's settlement might be among the first in the state this year.

It must still be approved by rank-and-file members of the Hernando County Classroom Teachers Association as well as the county's five-member School Board.

But negotiators on both sides think they have an easy sell.

For the teachers, the average 6 percent raise appears to be the biggest increase since they received an 8 percent bump during the 1990-91 school year.

Counting all it's spending on spiraling health care costs, the district will actually put about 7.25 percent in new money toward salary, fringe benefits and insurance. All told, it amounts to about $3-million.

"I think what we got is a fair amount considering state funding," said Stephen Stora, a teacher at Powell Middle School and one of the lead negotiators for the teachers union.

On top of that, teachers received a guarantee that, barring a financial disaster, they will receive step increases for experience each of the next three years.

For the school district, the early settlement means the 2000-01 contract might be ratified by mid-June. Principals will be able to wave hard salary figures at teacher recruits who visit during the summer. In an era when teacher shortages are a fact of life, that could be something of a competitive advantage over districts still in negotiations.

The new pay scale also reflects two of the administration's top salary priorities:

It sets a starting salary equal to the one offered next year by Citrus County, a key rival in the cutthroat teacher recruiting wars.

It awards the biggest percentage raises to teachers in the middle of the pay scale, those with 10 to 14 years of experience. That area is where Hernando County has traditionally been the least competitive, human resources director Edd Poore said. Many teachers who hit that plateau are tempted to go elsewhere for better pay, he said.

"We had a major concern about those middle people," Poore said.

If there is a drawback to the settlement reached Wednesday, it is that it reflects increases in employee health care costs.

Poore said the district expects prescription drug prices to increase by 25 percent next year. Overall, health care costs are expected to rise by more than 12 percent, Poore said.

For teachers alone, the district expects to spend nearly $500,000 more on health care. But to make its health care budget, the district will likely have to raise some physician co-payments and ask teachers to pay part of their individual health care premiums _ something it has not done in several years.

Those added costs are not a reflection of the district's recent decision to become its own health insurance provider, Poore said. Instead, they are a consequence of inflation in the health care field.

More than just salaries, the tentative deal struck Wednesday covers a broad spectrum of issues relating to teacher working conditions, grievance procedures and classroom responsibilities.

Salary, fringe benefits and insurance coverage will be renegotiated each year. But except for one change per year from each side, the School Board and the union would be bound to all other contractual language until 2003.

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