Contact Megan Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mareevs.
After months of back-and-forth, the Pinellas County’s teachers union tentatively agreed Wednesday to a 2.55 percent pay raise for the district’s 7,000 instructors plus a small bump in salary for new teachers.The union also made “significant strides” related to better working conditions, said Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo.Under the new terms, reached in a private meeting between Gandolfo and the district’s lead negotiators, teachers will gain more autonomy over lesson planning, be required to attend fewer meetings and receive performance evaluations that are more in-depth.“What we’ve done in this contract is cut little things that just make teachers’ lives a little, tiny bit easier,” Gandolfo said in an interview. “We’re hoping when you put them together cumulatively, they will add up to a better working environment.”The terms are contingent on a final vote by all teachers and should be official by Feb. 12, when the School Board could vote to ratify the changes. That will make Pinellas only the second of four districts in the Tampa Bay area to settle salary negotiations with its teachers.Instructors in Hernando have asked for a 4.25 percent raise compared to the district’s offer of 2.75 percent. Bargaining teams will meet again Monday, where the district is expected to make a new proposal, said union president Vince LaBorante.Pasco County is still in talks, too, with the district saying its “best and final offer” is a 2 percent raise. But teachers are holding out for 2.5 percent and could wait until March or longer to cash in on raises regardless.Similar situations are playing out in other Florida districts, like Indian River County, where the teachers union announced this week that negotiations there have arrived at a stalemate. Brevard County’s teachers union said the same in mid-December, calling the school district’s raise offer “laughable,” according to Florida Today.In Pinellas, the teachers union had held out for months on agreeing to the district’s proposed raise before this week, urging the school district to make changes to improve teachers’ day-to-day working conditions before talking money.Several weeks of contentious bargaining sessions — some of which ended abruptly when union and district teams couldn’t agree — featured Gandolfo arguing that teaching in Pinellas has become harder in recent years because of added responsibilities piled onto the job over time.RELATED: ‘They will not break us.’ Pinellas teachers turn down a raise to press for better working conditions.And the district heard those concerns loud and clear, assistant superintendent and lead negotiator Paula Texel said in an interview Wednesday. It just took time to hash out the details.Negotiating this year “was a lengthy process,” she said. “But I think it was important to take the time … to go through each one of the (contract articles) and listen to both sides … and make sure our work force has what it needs to do the job they do with our students.”The two bargaining teams spent at least 18 months discussing the evaluation system, she said. Under the terms agreed to Wednesday, teachers will have fewer performance reviews and more control over how those are conducted.In a change from current practice, they will be entitled to evaluation conferences before and after each review, where their principal will walk through benchmarks the teacher is expected to meet and give constructive criticism and advice to help them improve.“There is more conversation now and a lot more feedback and communication,” said Tom Lentz, membership services director for the union, adding that “teachers can grow and learn and get better” under the new model.Teachers also will have more control over how they plan lessons under the new agreements, which say they no longer have to submit formal lesson plans to administrators. Instead of being judged on written plans, principals will evaluate teachers on their delivery in the classroom, Gandolfo said.Mandatory meetings will be less frequent, too, giving teachers more time to spend preparing lessons as they see fit.On another provision regarding pay, new teachers will start out earning $43,809 under the agreement, compared to $43,000 this year. The district had proposed raising the figure to $45,000 to boost Pinellas’ teacher recruitment efforts. But the union said that was too high and would cause frustration among longtime teachers making less or not much higher than the starting pay.Overall, the union is pleased with the tentative contract, Gandolfo said. And so is the district, Texel added.“Any time we improve our teachers’ working conditions, we are improving our kids’ learning conditions,” Gandolfo said. “I think the district started to understand that.”