Saying they don't want to see more employees leave for other counties, Pasco County School Board members on Tuesday called for new ideas to generate money for raises.
"This board made salaries a priority this year, and I don't see that reflected in the budget," board member Colleen Beaudoin said, registering her concern as the panel prepared to vote on its tentative 2018-19 spending plan.
The final vote is scheduled for Sept. 18.
Beaudoin asked her colleagues to come up with ideas to offer raises of perhaps 2 percent or 3 percent. A 1 percent salary and benefits increase for all district workers costs about $4.2 million.
"I am not saying it is going to be worth the tradeoff," Beaudoin said. "But I believe we owe it to the employees and the public to at least have the conversation."
Others on the board quickly joined the call.
Board member Steve Luikart said the district too often has blamed lean budget years when it has given slim or no pay hikes. In a $1.25 billion budget, he suggested, finding $4.2 million to $12.6 million should be possible.
If not, he wondered, "What are we doing?"
Vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley said she would support the tentative budget. But she, too, wanted to continue the conversation. "I don't want the wonderful people we have to go elsewhere," she said.
As the discussion continued, board member Allen Altman recommended that each member come up with specific ideas to consider if they really want to give raises. He said it would be unfair for the board to simply ask staff to make recommendations.
Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong agreed.
"It has to be something that we would seriously consider cutting," Armstrong said.
She added, though, that just because they might be willing to look at the ideas does not mean that the cuts will actually come. She recalled past years' budget discussions when some proposed cuts where reviewed and set aside.
"Back then I know what we always said, we wanted to do what affected the students the least. That is why we didn't touch the athletic programs, or the arts," she said. "This situation would be the same thing."
Armstrong told the board to submit ideas to the district office within a week, giving the finance team two weeks to research them before an Aug. 21 workshop.
That will give the board "time to talk to people and discuss, is it really worth it to make that cut," Armstrong said.
Superintendent Kurt Browning said his staff would prepare any requested information. At the same time, he advised the board that he and United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace had discussed the possibility of waiting until October to talk raises.
That way, he said, the district will have a better grip on how much money is rolling forward from fiscal 2017-18, and also how much money might be coming because of new students. Those funds could be used for raises, he said, and could alleviate the need for cuts.
Peace acknowledged the conversation, and worked to place blame on lawmakers rather than the board for the situation that so far does not have raises in the budget.
"We need to take salaries seriously and prioritize them accordingly," Peace said, adding, "This board is not the bad guy in the public education struggle."
Browning reminded the board that it could amend its budget even after the formal adoption in September. Board members agreed to keep their options open, even as they move the debate ahead.
"What we're looking for more than anything is information," Armstrong said, "so that when we find out that we do want to make some budget cuts we will have some idea … so we can make that informed decision."
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