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Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018
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Budget hole makes for testy talks on Hillsborough teacher raises

TAMPA — Tensions were high and patience was wearing thin Thursday during the latest salary bargaining between the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association and school district administrators.

The group is trying to reach the first salary agreement since the district discovered a large hole in its finances just months after firing former Superintendent MaryEllen Elia in January. New Superintendent Jeff Eakins said the district’s budget shortfall of about $142 million was due in part to pay increases for teachers under the Empowering Effective Teachers program, funded in part with a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Now, the grant money is preparing to sunset with only $80 million paid out and in two years, the district has eaten into more than half its $360 million reserve fund by using it to make payroll. Even though the district lost 79 teachers last school year, the money spent on salaries increased by about $77 million — $38 million of which went to classroom teachers — and employee benefits by about $24 million. Some teachers are earning more than administrators. Still, the district shouldn’t look for money in teachers’ pockets, said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teachers association.

Thursday’s proposal from the district would grant raises but not retroactive to the start of the fiscal year July 1 — a prospect that cracked a once congenial relationship and gave rise to anger and raised voices Thursday.

“I would like you to invite the superintendent to come to this negotiation because I would be happy to get out a book and actually read what bargaining in good faith is,” Baxter-Jenkins told the district’s negotiating team. “Bargaining in good faith is not coming back and offering less.”

Salary negotiations for about 16,000 teachers and 4,500 support employees began in May and were meant to be settled by the time teachers returned to the classroom Aug. 25. The school district will still honor previous commitments to give teachers pay raises according to their years of experience.

But state law now requires school districts to provide performance pay, which relies in part on teachers’ evaluations. In Hillsborough, that process and the network of peer evaluators it involves is expected to change once the Gates funding runs out next year.

Among the union’s top priorities is a pay hike for educational support professionals — including school bus drivers, custodians, and office assistants — from $9.12 an hour to $10.77 an hour. The union packed Tuesday’s school board meeting with teachers and support professionals who shared stories of struggling to make ends meet .

“There are ESP’s that have to work two jobs to support their families,” said Crystal Blanco, who has worked as an ESP for 21 years. “ESP’s work with pride and dedication, but some have to seek government assistance and sometimes our ESP’s have to give up what they love and have to seek another profession because they would make more money.”

The school district’s employee relations manager Mark West said the message was received, but giving more money to support professionals will take money from other employees. The offer he presented to the union’s negotiating team Thursday would allow support professionals to move up two levels on the salary scale and get a one-time payment of $250, or move up three levels and lock in a 6 percent raise moving forward.

School psychologists would move up a level on the salary scale and all employees would get a $100 bonus to compensate for an expected increase in health insurance costs. National board certified teachers would receive an extra $1,000 in February or March.

The catch: None of those raises would go into effect until approved by the school board and wouldn’t be retroactive to the beginning of the school year, meaning the longer it takes for negotiations to end and the school board to approve a salary agreement, the less money teachers would have.

No one already at the top of the salary schedule would see pay increases.

Teachers eligible for a $4,000 raise by earning an “effective” evaluation for three years wouldn’t get the full amount this year because of the retroactive agreement — they would only get increases for the remaining weeks after the board approved the new agreement.

Baxter-Jenkins said that in her 30 years in the district, she cannot remember raises that weren’t retroactive.

“Doing no raises in a place where there is an actual crisis, not a crisis made up by people who can’t read their own budget, is a very different story than where we’re at,” Baxter-Jenkins said.

West said the new proposal would actually provide teachers with more money than previous proposals for this year’s salaries. The district has set aside about $22 million for additional salary increases not already pledged.

“We have basically a pot of money we can give to this. We don’t have any more money than that,” West said.

Eakins said it was the new salary schedule that caused the pot to shrink.

Teachers in their first, second or third year on the job automatically switched to the new scale when it was introduced in 2013-14, and those on their fourth year or more chose whether to move to the new scale or stay on the old one.

Because those changes were made mid-year, after the school board receives its yearly budget presentation, the school board never saw the financial effect of moving thousands of teachers to a new pay schedule, Eakins said.

The new scale averaged out to a 4 percent raise for each teacher. Now, one month of school district salaries amounts to about $95 million. The projected overall district budget is about $2.8 billion.

Stephanie Woodford, chief human resources officer, said the district anticipated a slow transition as teachers who moved to the new scale would also be giving up tenure. But district decided not to require teachers to give up tenure, and about 90 percent jumped on the new scale.

“We had a big increase over the past two years when everybody moved on that salary schedule, and that’s great. We’re open to paying teachers more money. But what happened was our salary bucket had to get a lot bigger to be able to just meet the salaries of teachers with the new salary schedule,” Woodford said.

With the holidays approaching, teachers are feeling nervous about receiving the money owed to them, Baxter-Jenkins said. That feeling is only exasperated by school board spending, like the recent decision to spend an estimated $900,000 to hire Gibson Consulting to take a look at what went wrong with the budget.

In addition, extra federal money promised last year to teachers in schools with large numbers of low-income students isn’t expected to be parceled out until January, after teacher evaluations are finalized, she said.

“It is a choice by this district to hire people that don’t understand finances,” Baxter-Jenkins said. “It is a choice by this district to spend money on consulting, some of which has never comes to the sunshine. It’s a matter of the choices people make.”

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