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Monday, Oct 22, 2018
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Hillsborough teachers balk at school district offer of $1.8 million in bonuses

TAMPA — They were hoping to receive between $15 million and $17 million in scheduled pay raises.

Instead, Hillsborough County’s pubic school teachers on Monday were offered slightly more than a tenth of that, a lump sum of $1.8 million to be shared among roughly 20,000 employees the union represents.

"Our superintendent has had to make extremely difficult decisions," employee relations manager Mark West told the bargaining team. "We are asking you to be patient."

West also asked that the two sides work together to revise a pay plan that was negotiated in 2013, and is becoming increasingly difficult for the cash-strapped district to afford.

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It was not clear, when negotiations broke up around 5 p.m., if the union would accept the offer.

But executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins did not appear hopeful, meaning that if neither side gives in, the negotiations could move to an impasse phase, requiring a hearing officer.

"This is a pay cut," Baxter-Jenkins said, estimating the offer works out to $92 per person, not enough to cover rising health insurance costs. "I can’t see that satisfying people."

The offer and its chilly reception come more than six months after negotiations began in May. This has been the pattern for the last three years, and union leaders say they are tired of it. "We keep sitting here like the budget is a total mystery," Baxter-Jenkins said.

District leaders say they have no choice but to hold the line on payroll, by far the biggest part of their operating budget of $1.8 billion.

Bond rating agencies in New York have warned the district not to draw down its reserves to pay recurring expenses, as it has in the last five years. If that happens, the district’s credit ratings could be lowered "and that will costs us tens of millions of dollars," West said.

Baxter-Jenkins took the opportunity to berate superintendent Jeff Eakins, who was not at the session, for hiring administrators including coaches for the principals even though money is tight and telling the Tampa Bay Times editorial board recently about teachers who earn between $80,000 and $100,000.

Those cases are extremely rare, Baxter-Jenkins said, and those teachers take on so many additional duties, it’s as if they were working two jobs.

She also described workplace issues that have gone unresolved, including increased demands for teachers to have lesson plans ready for inspection.

"The new position of this district is to see what you can get away with under this contract instead of following it," she said.

Tensions between the union and district leaders have grown steadily in recent months, following a period of harmony in September when the two sides responded together to Hurricane Irma and a devastating fire at Lee Elementary School.

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The good will dissipated in October, when district leaders said they could not honor a pay plan that gives most teachers a $4,000 raise every three years.

To protest that position, teachers have appeared by the hundreds at School Board meetings. Students at some high schools staged brief walkouts in support of the teachers.

A group of teachers walked out as Eakins gave his remarks to the board on Nov. 14. Outside, they held up signs and shouted slogans while passing motorists honked their horns in support.

And last week, teachers implored one another to "work the contract," meaning they would enter the school together in the morning, leave together in the afternoon and refrain from grading papers or answering emails from parents in the evening hours.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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