Hoping to still influence 2016-17 pay rates, representatives from the United School Employees of Pasco met with school district finance officials late last week to learn more about just how much money might be available for salaries.
District leaders have said they have enough for an average compensation increase of 3.5 percent, which includes benefits contributions. Union leaders say there's room for more. They're looking at unassigned general fund balances to boost the bottom line.
"The district believes 5 percent or better is healthy," said Jim Ciadella, USEP director of operations. "We believe it would be appropriate to put some of those dollars in employees' hands."
He noted that the district annually has what it calls "roll forwards" — budgeted but unspent money — in the millions of dollars. This year, the amount is about $3.2 million.
With that money, USEP president Kenny Blankenship said, the union would recommend offering higher raises to employees who earn the least in comparison to the statewide average of their peers. State data for 2015-16 indicates that Pasco school-related employees make about 84 percent of the average wage, while teachers earn 89 percent of the state average.
By comparison, Pasco's deputy superintendent was paid 97 percent of the state average for that position.
"We do believe the money that is available should be used to address some of these inequities," Ciadella said.
Business representative Val Smith, who leads teacher contract negotiations, stressed that USEP is not looking to give larger raises to some workers at the expense of not giving raises to others.
"Nobody wants to see that," Smith said. "But maybe 3 percent for everyone isn't the fair and right thing to do."
Contract negotiations have not taken place in a couple of weeks, and now the union representatives are suggesting that money talks might not be prudent until September. That will give them a chance to see how much money the district really has available, they said, after the filing of its annual financial report.
DROPOUT PREVENTION: A decline in Pasco County's high school graduation rate — from 79.2 percent to 78.6 percent — has district leaders taking another look at how to keep teens in school and on track.
"We must begin this new school year with a renewed focus on dropout prevention/intervention services and the programs put in place to increase our graduation rate," superintendent Kurt Browning wrote in an Aug. 5 memo to high school principals.
Browning said he wants all graduation enhancement and student support teachers to be working solely on dropout prevention issues. They should not participate in credit recovery or any other issues that take their attention away from their primary objective, he told the principals.
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Their work should include identifying at least 100 students who could be considered at risk because of their grades, attendance, discipline or a combination of factors. The district's early warning system is designed to help determine which students need help the most.
They then should monitor these students' work, collaborating with classroom teachers and meeting daily with the students to keep them moving forward. They also would keep parents aware of how their children are doing.
Browning expressed hope that, if these steps are done properly, the need for makeup work, often the bane of struggling high schoolers, would decline and the graduation rate would rise.
SCHOOL BUSES: For the first time, all Pasco school buses this year will be equipped with GPS and a new dedicated radio frequency for drivers to communicate with the county's 911 system.
The added capabilities will allow the district to keep track of where its buses are located, as well as get quicker attention if emergencies occur.
District leaders have made it a priority in recent years to improve student transportation, including communication with parents if buses are running off schedule. This is the latest step in that process.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @jeffsolochek.