Pasco teachers, support employees agree to biggest raises in years

Meanwhile, contract talks are stalled in neighboring Hillsborough and Pinellas as teachers push for better pay.
Representatives for the Pasco County school district and the United School Employees of Pasco sign an agreement to provide teachers an average raise of 5.4% on Wednesday.
Representatives for the Pasco County school district and the United School Employees of Pasco sign an agreement to provide teachers an average raise of 5.4% on Wednesday. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]
Published Sept. 1, 2022|Updated Sept. 1, 2022

LAND O’LAKES — Pasco County school district employees will be getting the biggest pay raise they’ve seen in years as a result of a deal their representatives reached during negotiations Wednesday.

Teachers are set to get an average raise of 5.4% under the agreement, which also increases the district’s minimum pay to $46,425. That’s still below the $47,500 that Gov. Ron DeSantis and lawmakers called for two years ago, but it’s an improvement on the $39,845 the district offered as a base pay before then.

The deal, which drew praise from union leaders, comes in stark contrast to stalled negotiations in neighboring Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Teachers have met the raise offers in those districts with disdain, prompting a formal impasse in Hillsborough’s case.

The Pasco deal also eliminates the experience cap the district had placed on retirees who sought to return to teaching, and on professionals with specialized licenses such as speech language pathologists. Employee relations supervisor Nora Light said schools had lost several qualified candidates because of that cap.

Support employees such as bus drivers and classroom assistants are set to see raises that could surpass 10% in some cases. The district offer would convert several supplements into permanent pay, then give everyone a 5% raise.

Employees who do not reach $15 per hour, which is required by the state beginning in October, would receive an additional bump to that level. Then the district would further adjust current employees’ experience levels to combat wage compression brought about by the new minimum wage law,

That change would translate into additional raises of about 5% for thousands of workers, employee relations supervisor Tom Neesham said. In total, the school-related employees would see raises totaling $19.33 million.

A year ago, by contrast, the district offered nonrepeating 4% supplements, a settlement arrived upon in May after months of discussions.

“We are very excited to sign this,” said Jeff Larsen, operations director for the United School Employees of Pasco. “We are excited about the number, first of all. It’s the largest we have had in a number of years. We’re also excited about the timing.”

The raises are set to appear in employees’ Sept. 30 paychecks. The added money retroactive to July 1 would come Oct. 21.

The sides agreed to distribute the money in advance of official contract ratification, with the understanding that employees might need to return some if the deal falls apart. They still have some language items within the contract to negotiate.

But they said they wanted to ensure employees get the added pay as soon as possible. Light added that the goal is to conclude financial talks early in future years, as well.

Next year, the district is set to begin collecting revenue from a newly approved property tax increase, with the proceeds dedicated to nonadministrative pay raises. Pasco School Board members have said the referendum money, which comes on top of the negotiated raises, should help the district become more competitive in recruiting and retaining faculty and staff members.

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During a meeting Tuesday, they noted that the district began seeing an influx of applicants soon after the referendum passed. The district had 131 advertised teaching positions on Monday, down from 354 a week before classes were set to resume.

In Hillsborough, meanwhile, the district wants to pay teachers the equivalent of the raises outlined in their multiyear pay plan. But, instead of recognizing their years of service and advancing them along the published pay plan, they’re offering teachers a onetime supplement.

The reason bargaining is more difficult in Hillsborough stems from the district’s strained relationship with state leaders over its operating budget.

After years of deficits, the state in 2021 ordered Hillsborough to implement an austerity plan. Because conventional pay raises add to operating expenses, which are under close scrutiny, the district chose instead to treat the payments as temporary supplements. Officials said this payout would come from their reserve.

The problem with a one-time supplement, union leaders say, is its temporary nature.

“All of our employees are making less dollars today than they were last year,” union president Rob Kriete told the School Board on Tuesday. That’s because their salaries essentially have been frozen.

At their most recent bargaining session, district leaders said student enrollment was lower than expected this year, freeing up enough money so they can offer one year of conventional raises and one year of supplements.

Union leaders are now surveying their members before they return to the table.

Negotiations in Pinellas County have not gone smoothly either.

Stating that the rising cost of living is pricing employees out of the local housing market, Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association leaders initially asked for a raise slightly above 11%. They later reduced their ask to closer to 8%.

District officials, meanwhile, have stuck to their initial offer of 3.25%, the same amount they’ve proposed in several past years. Superintendent Kevin Hendrick recently said that the district has little wiggle room beyond the $18 million it has made available for all raises.

Teachers union president Nancy Velardi suggested that the administration’s weakness is its inflexibility in the face of changing circumstances. Instead of paying down debt more quickly, she suggested, “Just make different choices to retain your educators.”

She said she was emboldened by Pasco’s settlement, and expected to hold out for more than the district’s 3.25% offer. The district noninstructional employee unions recently were offered about 4%, and the leaders of the three groups have worked more in concert this year than in the past.

The teachers head back to the table on Tuesday, but don’t expect to settle for a while.

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