Hillsborough school district and its teachers are close to a deal on pay

Talks are ongoing in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Negotiating teams for the Hillsborough County School District, left; and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, right, near the end of a long bargaining session on Sept. 28, 2023.
Negotiating teams for the Hillsborough County School District, left; and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, right, near the end of a long bargaining session on Sept. 28, 2023. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]
Published Sept. 29

The Hillsborough County School District and its teachers union came close to a pay deal on Thursday, but talks ended late in the evening without a resolution.

The two sides are $5.7 million apart, down from $17 million earlier in the evening and about $50 million at the beginning of the month.

Another bargaining session is expected Monday.

Plans being proposed and counter-proposed call for a starting pay of either $47,500 or $48,000 for most teachers, and a ceiling after 25 years of $72,000 or slightly higher.

The district’s yearly operating budget, under the teacher’s latest proposal, would grow by $39.7 million. Teachers say the district can well afford that increase, as it ended the last three budget years with as much as $103 million in instructional money that went unspent.

“We are confident that you have money in the budget to pay for this right now,” said Brittni Wegmann, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

The district team, however, says the union’s calculations are misleading because in the last three years, federal COVID-19 relief money has paid for expenses that would otherwise come out of the state-funded budget. The district says it is trying to protect its operating budget from being thrown off balance in the future.

“We want to get this done as much as you do,” employee relations manager Danielle Shotwell said. “But we also have to be responsible with what the future can hold. We have to be able to sustain it.”

If the two sides emerge with a deal next week, it will be a unusual development for a district that often sees negotiations drag on into the winter months. Its most recent bargaining cycle, for 2022-23, ended in an impasse and was ultimately resolved after a special hearing master sided with the union.

It would also place them ahead of Pasco County, where negotiations only recently began; and Pinellas County, where the two sides have met several times and are about $4 million apart.

At a bargaining session Wednesday in Pinellas, union executive director Lindsey Blankenbaker said the district is putting a lot of money in its reserves, when it should be focused on preventing teachers from leaving.

“They have it, and they can do it, and they need to,” she said after the session. “It’s not a matter of, can they afford it? They can’t afford not to.”

But district chief financial officer Kevin Smith noted that the state had provided Pinellas with just under $8 million for added pay, and the district’s total package neared $20 million. “I don’t want to put the district in a position where we have to make cuts,” he said.

The United School Employees of Pasco, meanwhile, has asked for an average raise of 4.85% along with higher contributions to health insurance and a $3,250 supplement per semester to teachers who provide extra periods of instruction. A counter-proposal is expected in about a week.

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Pinellas and Pasco enjoy an advantage over Hillsborough in that both counties have property taxes that help fund teacher pay. With those proceeds, Pinellas can pay teachers a starting salary of $51,162. Money from the new tax in Pasco boosted that system’s starting salary to $48,425.

Hillsborough does not have such a tax. A referendum to create one was narrowly defeated at the polls in 2022.

Staff writer Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report.