School leaders in Hillsborough County looked for a way on Wednesday to hold onto dissatisfied teachers despite a spending deficit that has them once again under state scrutiny.
Their solution involved some creative accounting: Give teachers a two-year pay increase package of $28.2 million, but cover the amount with short-term funding — most likely, federal COVID-19 relief funds — and treat the payments more like bonuses or supplements than true raises.
Combined with other components, including a state-funded move to start new teachers at $47,500, the district team valued its offer at $33.7 million.
District leaders are under pressure from the state to lower their annual, or “recurring,” expenses. They have said previously that they face a $111 million spending deficit this school year unless they make adjustments. Their reserves are also projected to fall below the amount required by state law.
They have, however, been able to fill some of those gaps with COVID-19 relief money that the federal government is providing to cushion the pandemic’s impact on the nation’s schools.
“It would not be fiscally responsible for us to use nonrecurring funds for recurring expenses,” said Danielle Shotwell, general manager of employee relations. She asked the teachers to “partner with us” and also to help lobby the state for more money.
Wednesday’s bargaining session, the first since December, was packed with teachers. The district team described lump-sum payments that would equal what the teachers would receive if they advanced to a new pay year. Lacking a new contract, teachers have been working at last year’s pay rates.
The first year’s lump sum would be paid at the end of the current school year. Payments for the second year would be made in two installments, the first in November. Both would be retroactive to July 1.
The money would be taxed like salary. It also would be treated like salary in the state’s retirement system.
But the first year’s payment would not carry over to the second year, as teachers would not get credit for a year served. In some cases, a teacher might earn less money the second year than the first. That’s because yearly increases are given in varying amounts, ranging from $800 to $2,200.
Chief of Staff Michael McAuley said he hopes that, over time, the district will get control of its finances so teachers can count on regular raises with credit for years served.
But, he said, “we cannot promise something years out that we cannot fund at this time.”
The reaction from union president Rob Kriete was not supportive. “It’s so frustrating to talk about recurring funds,” he said. “But yet we still want recurring teachers.”
As for stopping teachers from advancing on the pay scale, he said, “it becomes insulting, not to get this credit.”
Later in the session, Kriete almost ended the talks after he said a member of the district team laughed at a question from Florida Education Association bargaining specialist Jonathan Tuttle.
“We don’t laugh at questions,” Kriete said. “A teacher wouldn’t do that.”
The two sides plan to return to the table on Monday.