LAND O'LAKES — Representatives from the Pasco County school district and the United School Employees of Pasco sat together several times in the weeks leading to Thanksgiving break, trading contract proposals amid (mostly) amicable conversation.
They came closer to terms, giving and taking on pay and related matters, but couldn't land a deal by the holiday as everyone had desired.
The numbers bandied about as possible raises hovered at less than 2 percent, below the district's offer of 2.65 percent a year earlier.
Yet this time around, no one made noise about calling off the talks and seeking mediation. In the days before Thanksgiving 2016, by contrast, USEP leaders accused the district — Pasco County's largest employer — of being unwilling to negotiate and declared an impasse.
The sides hadn't held formal conversations in the preceding two months, and they didn't reach a final agreement for another five months.
"I think the relationship is much better," district employee relations director Kathy Scalise said.
That's in large part because USEP president Don Peace, who has pursued changing the union's interactions with the district. Former president Kenny Blankenship, whom Peace ousted, frequently and publicly battled with superintendent Kurt Browning over work conditions, pay and other issues.
Peace said he wanted more positive, professional connections between the USEP and the administration. Since he took over, he has made sure that union leaders have met more regularly with district officials away from the table, including at least monthly discussions with the budget team about the district's books.
Browning and Peace also have regular sit-downs, something almost unheard of when Blankenship led the union.
Peace said there's no need to be contentious, even when the sides differ in their opinions.
"We're respectfully promoting our point of view," he said.
The upshot is that, despite having less money to deal with than when the USEP announced talks couldn't progress, the sides continue to bargain.
They reached a deal on revised performance evaluations — an issue that not long ago stalled negotiations for several months — with little antipathy.
The USEP quickly reduced its ask on raises after starting off high, while the district has looked for places it might meet the union halfway. Again, just for comparison, in 2016 the district so adamantly opposed the USEP's proposal to guarantee renewal for annual-contract teachers who receive strong employment evaluations that it asked the Legislature to change the law so no such agreements are permitted.
They still have disagreements. The district wants to pay bonuses to selected teachers who aren't included in the state's Best and Brightest scholarship program, for example, while the union has supported the idea only if the money comes from reserves.
"Recurring money should be used for salary adjustments across the board," Peace said.
Scalise did not anticipate the back and forth to land in another acrimonious dispute, though.
"I don't think we're dramatically far apart," she said. "The only thing from my perspective that gets us to impasse is if they insist we have money that we don't. It's not going to be about the show of impasse."
USEP operations director Jim Ciadella said the union would like to find more money to work with. But the union understands the Legislature tied up much of the revenue that might have gone to raises in bonus programs and other initiatives, leaving less for negotiating.
"We have a little more interest in coming to terms with the money there is peacefully, and then move on," Ciadella said.
The sides had hoped to be done bargaining by now, like many other districts around Florida. Their new goal is to have something in place before everyone heads off for winter break in December.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.