The union says the raises it wants are in the budget. District officials say those dollars must be kept in reserve.
Tampa Bay Times | By Marlene Sokol | December 14, 2021
Hillsborough County Public School teachers are no closer to their bid for starting salaries of $49,200, after an unsuccessful bargaining session this week.
The school district still insists that, after years of running operating deficits, it cannot afford a pay package that would increase yearly spending by $38.7 million.
The teachers union, however, continues to point to published budgets that show spending for instructional staff will be at least $70 million higher than it was last year.
“We believe that our employees are worth this and a whole lot more,” union president Rob Kriete said during a bargaining session on Monday.
The session left the pay issue unresolved as the two sides break for the winter holidays. Negotiations will resume in late January.
Danielle Shotwell, the district’s general manager of employee relations, restated the district’s initial offer, which is to raise starting salaries from $46,900 to $47,400. This will be done with state dollars that are being made available so districts can comply with a mandate to start teachers at or near $47,500.
The law is controversial because teachers’ unions prefer to bargain for pay at the local level, and districts have had to scramble to also provide raises for long-time teachers.
The Hillsborough union’s request had included pay supplements for teachers who fall near the top of the salary schedules. There were other supplements, as well, for social workers, national board certified teachers, behavioral specialists and special education teachers.
The union originally estimated the entire package would increase spending by $35 million.
The district team, after analyzing the request, put the cost at $38.7 million, which Shotwell acknowledged was very close.
The issue in question concerns the additional $70 million in the budget, and whether that is available for teacher raises or if it must be kept in reserve.
Romaneir Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, was not at Monday’s session, making it impossible for the union team to pose specific questions about the budget. Johnson did answer the union’s questions at a previous bargaining session. District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said that, because of that communication, Johnson did not believe she was needed at Monday’s session.
Johnson has said previously that budget estimates, which are prepared in spring and summer, are always subject to change, as they are written before the district has most information it will need to make day-to-day spending decisions.
Last school year, the district’s reserves ran so low that state officials contemplated a fiscal takeover. Federal COVID-19 relief dollars enabled the district to pad its reserve balance so it would exceed the state-mandated minimum of 2 percent of revenues.
But COVID-19 dollars are a short-term source of funding, and district leaders say an imbalance still exists.
“We are not in a position to agree to this ask of $38.7 million,” Shotwell said. “I don’t know what, with the operational deficit that we’re in, we would be able to do at this time.”
She added that “moving forward, things can change,” and she asked the union to put its requests in order of priority. The district team also distributed a list of average teacher salaries in 2020-21 that showed Hillsborough, at $54,025, was the sixth-highest in the state.
Kriete said he was disappointed by the lack of movement.
“It’s upsetting and frustrating that we’re disrespecting the employees in this manner at a time when they are doing more than ever before,” he said. “And they’re just losing their minds because of the amount of work that they’re doing, trying to do to help these kids.”
Johnson and her team, separately, are looking for ways to cut spending by scrutinizing all new hires, even as schools make do with roughly 1,190 staff vacancies.
There is also talk of a campaign after the holidays for a special property tax that would be dedicated to school spending, as already exists in Pinellas, Hernando and many other Florida counties.