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Union, school district agree on deal

The district will cover the increase in health insurance and raises for veteran workers in a contract awaiting approval that doesn't cover teachers.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published September 6, 2003

BROOKSVILLE - The Hernando County school district has struck a tentative deal on pay and benefits with its 1,050 noninstructional employees, but remains months from completing a contract with its 1,100 teachers.

Under terms agreed to Aug. 28, members of Hernando United School Workers would get raises only by moving up in years of service on the district salary schedule. Employees at the top of the scale would receive 20 cents more per hour, or about $416 annually.

A year ago, the union got the longevity increase, plus an additional 25 cents hourly.

The district also has offered to cover the increase in health insurance premiums - $16 monthly for employees. Workers' contribution would remain $20 a month.

In all, the package is worth about $505,000, nearly $200,000 less than the noninstructional staff received a year ago.

The union membership and School Board still must ratify the contract. The union is tentatively slated to vote Sept. 27; the board has scheduled its vote for Sept. 16.

Edd Poore, the district's lead negotiator, said the agreement included no surprises. Officials have said for months that district finances, though stable, could not handle much more than minimal raises and extra benefits.

Union representatives could not be reached for comment.

School Board members said they had not given Poore much direction on the negotiations, save the tentative budget they reviewed earlier in the summer with the administration. That budget proposed step increases averaging 2.5 percent for all employees, as well as increases in health insurance coverage.

Board member Robert Wiggins said he had not been aware of the 20-cent hourly increase for employees at the top of the wage scale, but added that he would support it.

"I'd rather see something done at the bottom end," he said, suggesting that entry pay in the district is too low to be competitive. "When it's approved, I'll probably have something to say about that. But I understand money is tight."

Negotiators for the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, meanwhile, said they are not convinced that the district's fiscal picture is so bad. The teachers union has yet to begin discussing salary and benefits in its talks with the administration.

"I don't think they're as poor as they say they are," executive director Sandra Armstrong said. "But we'll see."

Armstrong said she expected the district will cover teachers' added health insurance premiums, as it did for nonteachers. She also expressed optimism that the district might do better than salary step increases for the teachers.

Overall, though, she said the administration and teachers are "really having a hard time getting into the swing of things" regarding contract talks. The move to collaborative bargaining has been difficult, she said.

So the bargaining team set four daylong sessions over the next two months to hash out deals on language and money issues, she said.

"Our goal is to get it completed before the Thanksgiving break," Armstrong said.

Poore acknowledged that the negotiations with teachers, which cover the entire contract, have not gotten to the nitty-gritty issues. When they met Wednesday, he said, "we didn't get into any controversial stuff."

But he expected the pace to pick up quickly.

"I'm ready to discuss those whenever they come up," Poore said. "Hopefully, on (Sept. 17) if we spend five or six hours, we can get to those critical issues."

School Board Chairman John Druzbick said the board had been more involved in the teacher contract than the deal with noninstruction employees. For the most part, though, he said, the schedule has been set by the administration and teachers union.

"I haven't heard of any problems," he said. "Why it's taking this long, I haven't a clue."

Druzbick praised the sides for working collaboratively and dropping the confrontational bargaining style that they had employed in past years. During last year's negotiations, which covered just a few issues, the teachers declared the talks to be at an impasse.

They conducted informational pickets and worked only the terms of their contract while awaiting a deal they found acceptable. They did not reach an agreement until late November.

- Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 6, 2003, 02:01:52]


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