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Schools, union reach deal for pay

After nearly three years of talks, about 400 bus drivers, custodians, and food and maintenance workers have a proposed contract that provides retroactive pay.

About 400 Citrus County schoolworkers have another tentative contract in hand, one that includes more retroactive pay than the proposal workers rejected in June.

The Teamsters Union and school administration signed off on the proposal Monday afternoon. Ed Murphy, head of the administration team, enthusiastically shook hands with and congratulated each Teamster team member on the settlement.

Both teams agreed to meet with the 400 or so workers who would be affected to explain the proposal. The workers and the School Board must ratify the contract. The parties have been negotiating this contract, which is the first since this group of employees chose to unionize in 1997, for nearly three years.

Since those negotiations started, the affected bus drivers, food service workers, maintenance workers, mechanics and custodians have not received pay increases beyond those doled out annually for increased experience.

The tentative proposal includes $452,600 for retroactive raises and another $86,000 in benefits stretching back over the past two school years. The average retroactive pay per worker would be more than $1,000, although pay ranges for the various job categories vary greatly.

The pay package would move the workers to the salary scale that has been in effect for other support workers for the past several years. Under the proposed contract, workers would be placed at the correct category for their job on the new scale for last year for purposes of retroactivity. They would be moved to the next nearest, greater pay level on that scale in their job classification so no one would lose any pay.

Then retroactive pay, amounting to 2 percent a year which is 4 percent total, would be added to arrive at the retroactive amount.

For the current year, workers would receive what amounts to a raise of 35 cents per hour. Those workers who have not reached the top step of their salary scale would receive 25 cents more per hour. For those workers, the raise amount, in addition to retroactive pay, would be 60 cents per hour.

Bus drivers who opt to continue to be paid using the existing pay system rather than the hourly scale would see a $400 increase for last year, plus 4 percent of that increasedsalary amount for their total retroactive pay. In addition, they would receive another $400 for this year.

Also, anyone who has left the system since July 1 and had worked during the past several years would receive some retroactive pay. So would employees who receive workers' compensation or who are serving approved leaves of absence.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a tentative agreement after almost three years," Murphy announced after he and Teamster representative Bob Meeks signed off on the proposal.

The Teamsters told administrators last week that a second year of retroactive pay might be enough to get them to drop their demand for arbitration for employees facing suspension and firing. On Monday, the Teamsters asked for retroactivity dating back to the 1997-98 school year, which is when the contract talks began.

In essence, the union only managed to get the one additional year of retroactive pay, and the arbitration issue was dropped in Monday's discussion. But the contract proposal allows the union to raise the issue of salary and some other topics annually.

"I'm not 110 percent happy, but I've got the same feeling I had before _ that people have a right to vote," the Teamsters' Meeks said. "The money figure is much higher in this. It's costing them a pretty penny."

The exact cost for the 2000-01 raises had not yet been figured, and no averages were available for the various job categories. The School Board had met early Monday morning behind closed doors in an executive session to discuss union matters. That session ended just before the Teamsters went back to the bargaining table.

The Monday session featured some tense moments, such as when Meeks tried to add contract language that would ensure that employees would not lose benefits they currently receive. He noted that there had been rumors about cut benefits and even privatization of some services, and he wanted to provide workers some promise of stability.

Ultimately, the Teamsters dropped the idea of adding that language, and the administration dropped some language the Teamsters thought would have allowed the School Board to nullify the contract if they believed they had some need to do so.