BROOKSVILLE - Hernando County is one of 11 school districts in the state still to finalize teacher pay raises, and administrators say that isn't likely to happen until after winter break.
School Superintendent Lori Romano said she hoped the negotiations could be completed before then so teachers could enjoy a little added peace of mind over the holidays.
But that meeting has yet to be scheduled, District Spokesman Roy Gordon said.
And negotiations gridlocked Friday after Hernando County Classroom Teachers Association sent a counter letter to the district, reiterating their position on a proposal the district presented last month during their first and only meeting.
John Imhof, a HCTA bargaining member and social studies teacher at Springstead High, wrote in the counter letter that the HCTA understands the challenges the district faces in preparing both a grandfather schedule and a merit pay schedule for the 2014-15 school year, as well as issues in dealing with contractual language that comply with recent legislation.
"However, now is not the time to deal with these issues," he wrote. ""HCTA has made it clear that our priority was, is now, and will continue to be, settling the issue of the distribution of the reoccurring state funds for new teacher salaries before tackling the aforementioned issues."
HCTA partially accepted a district offer during the Nov. 13 meeting that included, among other incentives, an additional pay raise before the winter holiday.
But that bait had a hook to it: a proviso that bargaining members remove automatic annual raises from their contracts, which amounted to $1,805,551 total increases this year alone.
That's not going to happen, HCTA President Jo Ann Hartge said, but the HCTA noted in their counter offer that the language in their current automatic step contract should be revised to comply with recent changes in state law after implementing changes in the 2013-14 salary schedule.
Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, said she can empathize with that stance.
"We do not have automatic step increases, and as far as unions go that's not something they want to give up," Webb said, adding that she thinks that reality actually fostered negotiations between Pasco's school board and teachers union. "During these rough years, it required the district to make sure increases were budgetary priority, and in other districts like Pasco they did not make salaries budgetary priority."
But unlike Pasco teachers and school employees, who have not received pay increases for five years, Hernando County union and nonunion members alike have received annual pay increases.
It's one of the reasons Heather Martin, executive director of Business Services, drew a hard line in her response to the HCTA's counter offer.
In her response, Martin said it would be fiscally irresponsible for the district to agree to add an additional $3.6 million provided by the state to the existing salary schedule with no guarantee of future funding.
"The district would have to add the same $3.6 million in the salary schedule next year in addition to the $1.8 million that is required for automatic step increases," Martin wrote. "By agreeing to the HCTA's proposal, the district would have to commit over $5.4 million in next year's budget just to fund the current instructional salary schedule."
Martin further stated the district cannot ignore the performance pay requirement or treat it as a separate item if additional money is being added to the current salary schedule, especially since it is an unfunded mandate the district is required by law to implement for the 2014-15 school year.
The only reasonable assurance the district can give the HCTA, Martin wrote, is that if additional funding for teacher salaries becomes available, then it will most likely be tied to the performance pay schedule.
"I do have to express our disappointment that (the HCTA) did not include a real counter of either money or language . (only) postponing discussion on all of the relevant items," Martin wrote, adding that the HCTA's demands undermine a recent school board initiative to bring the district's current projected 3.21-percent fund balance up to 5 percent.
School board members have stated in recent meetings that this is an objective worth pursuing, and in the hopes it will provide added job security for employees should the district face future unfunded mandates, or some cataclysmic, natural-disaster-type emergency.
Webb said she has heard similar sentiments expressed in Pasco County Schools come negotiating time.
"There were times we think the district could have realigned their priorities, or used reserves knowing at some point the economic crisis would not last forever," said Webb. "But districts tend to want some money in the bank for a rainy day, and when it rains they're afraid to spend it, so I can certainly empathize with the teachers in Hernando not wanting to give up step increases."
And why should they when the Hernando County school board has so far managed to get through rough economic times and still find room in the budget for automatic step increases, Webb said.
"They've already proved it's doable," she said.
How the delay might affect HCTA's options remains to be seen, and whether the district's offer to apply a total $5.5 million in increases to all bargaining members' salaries will remain on the table.
In their counter proposal, the HCTA reiterated they want a conforming plan that will provide the full $5.5 million to all bargaining members' 2013-14 salary schedule, or a 6.5-percent salary increase to be paid retroactively starting July 1, 2013.
What the HCTA is proposing bears similarities to what Hillsborough County School District accomplished this summer while negotiating teacher raises.
The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association and school board were able to formulate two pay schedules for experienced employees and new employees, while allowing experienced employees to opt into the new model if they wish.
But what preceded that format, and indeed help ed model it, were years of trial and error with no pay increases going back to the early- to mid-2000s, said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association and teacher of 20 years.
"Several years ago in Hillsborough we had step increases, and there was an assumption and belief, except for extraordinary circumstances, that everybody would move up a step and we would try with available dollars to meet or exceed costs of living," she said. "But our steps, for a ton of different reasons and money scenarios over the years, weren't equal."
What they began to see were step increases amounting to one-third of 1 percent, others at 2 percent, and some as high as 7 percent, Clements said. But many were close to zero.
"We wanted to make them closer to equal, so in a worst-case scenario everyone received the same proportionate salary, and everybody would get the same percent increase," said Webb, but confusion started among employees on salary schedules, after so many years, about what step they were on and where their pay should be. "So we negotiated a whole new salary schedule this year that all of our new people are automatically on, and all of our veterans will have an opportunity to opt into in February if they want to."
That new schedule awards experience, Clements said, with significant salary increases awarded every four years.
Amid faltering negotiations between the HCTA and Hernando County School District, the district has requested HCTA submit dates in January and February when they will be available to meet with the district and continue bargaining.