Negotiators for the Pasco County school district and its teaching staff inched closer to a pay deal Tuesday evening, and expressed optimism they could reach an agreement sooner rather than later.
The sides remained more than $5 million apart in their proposals, though, leaving a wide gap that needs to be overcome.
"It's evident we're all committed to finding a middle ground as quickly as possible," said Val Smith, lead negotiator for the United School Employees of Pasco. "Our 3.75 percent request today is based on both what we believe is possible and what is needed. If everyone is willing to stretch a little, we can get there."
The USEP reduced its request from the 4.5 percent it presented two weeks ago. Smith suggested her latest raise proposal, which would cost about $8.9 million, would help the district keep educators who might be lured to higher paying surrounding districts.
"We feel like we have to do something," Smith said.
District employee relations director Kathy Scalise agreed with the sentiment, and said the administration is trying to cobble together as much money as it can to boost base pay.
Her offer was 1.5 percent — half as a cost of living increase and half as a part of the district's performance pay plan. It would total about $3.7 million, slightly more than the amount officials projected when they said raises likely would average 1 percent.
"We're going to consider what we can do," Scalise said, promising to take the USEP counterproposal to the School Board, which has a closed session set for Nov. 6 to discuss bargaining issues.
However, she said, the USEP's offer is "unlikely" to remain unchanged, noting the district must balance its budget.
Scalise also deleted the USEP's request for a non-recurring bonus based on the amount of surplus available in the district health insurance program. She noted the district has no idea how much money that might be, and wanted to leave the issue off the table until figures are more solid.
"At this point we are not prepared to say we even have a surplus," Scalise said.
Smith angled to leave that language in the counterproposal, saying the USEP is not specifying a dollar amount, but wants to keep the idea alive.
"We do believe it is the members who are actually participating in that insurance plan who have generated that surplus," she said. "It seems the right thing to do … is to give some of that money back to them."
The sides did not reach any agreements during their 80-minute session. They plan to return to the table in a week.
A day earlier, similar discussions took place for school related personnel contracts.