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Raises could come soon for Pasco school-related employees

They vote on their contract before leaving for winter break.
Pasco County school bus drivers are among the district employees who will be voting on a tentative contract that includes 3.25 percent raises.
Pasco County school bus drivers are among the district employees who will be voting on a tentative contract that includes 3.25 percent raises.
Published Dec. 10, 2019

Hoping to get raises into paychecks early in 2020, the Pasco County School District and United School Employees of Pasco plan to have school-related workers vote on their new contract offer before leaving for winter holidays.

Under the fairly tight time frame, which was set this week, the School Board and eligible district staff each would vote on the terms on Dec. 17. The union ballots would be counted two days later. The semester ends a day after that.

Ratification requires both groups to support the negotiated deal.

If approved, the district intends to quickly begin processing the payroll changes so workers could get their added wages — including back pay to the start of the school year — as soon as possible.

The sides reached a tentative agreement on Nov. 18. It included pay increases of 3.25 percent for all the staff, which includes secretaries, classroom aides and bus drivers, and more beyond that for some of the lowest-paid job categories.

The proposal also maintains district-paid health insurance for employees, though not for their families. It does not provide some of the items the union requested, such as higher mileage-reimbursement rates or a longevity bonus for veteran workers.

Neither does it include a disliked district proposal to require some teachers to instruct more classes daily in exchange for larger raises for all.

Union officials deemed the deal “fair” after completing the talks.

Negotiators for teacher contracts have not yet found a middle ground acceptable to both sides.

MEAL PROGRAM AUDIT: Every year, the district audits a portion of its free and reduced-price lunch applications to ensure they comply with federal requirements.

The system wants to keep its participation intact, to be sure the families who need the service can have it.

“It’s federal money,” assistant superintendent Kevin Shibley said. “That’s something we really can’t mess around with.”

This year, auditors discovered a “significant number" of district employees on the list who provided an income level on the application that did not match the wages the district is paying them. Investigators are interviewing about 215 workers in that category to determine the reasons for the discrepancies.

Almost all of the staffers have “very logical” explanations, Shibley said. They include providing the net rather than gross income, and entering pay rates from before raises were provided for 2018-19.

They’re being given a chance to resubmit their paperwork, with a cautionary message to be more careful in the future or face additional discipline.

But a tiny number acknowledged they knowingly misrepresented their salaries in order to qualify. One of them, food services specialist Katie Wright, managed the eligibility verification program for three years.

“She knew how things worked,” Shibley said of Wright, an eight-year district employee.

Wright resigned her position in October, in lieu of likely termination. The district is having “very serious conversations” with the few others determined to have intentionally provided incorrect information.

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In a phone interview, Wright acknowledged she “should have known better.”

But she said she had seen in past instances that when Pasco school employees were caught for misstating their income, they would receive a letter telling them to fix their mistakes.

“No one was ever asked to resign because of this,” Wright said. “I did not realize it was a fireable offense.”

She explained that, as a single parent trying to complete a college degree and pay medical bills, it had become increasingly difficult to make ends meet. She figured getting free meals for her child would help.

Wright said she has struggled to find a new job since leaving the district.

Shibley acknowledged that the district’s salaries are low, and the administration and School Board are attempting to find ways to boost pay so fewer employees will need to participate in the National School Lunch Program. Still, he said, that’s no excuse for purposely taking advantage of a program.

The district expects to complete its investigation by the end of December.