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Pay raise might have to last
Teachers will receive a promised hike, but tight state finances paint a gloomy picture for next year.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published August 8, 2007
LAND O'LAKES - Pasco school teachers will get promised pay increases as they head back to work next week.
They might not get much more.
In announcing she had authorized the annual "steps," or contracted raises based on years of service and level of education, superintendent Heather Fiorentino noted that tight state finances might preclude the district from lifting salaries any higher.
The "steps" for Pasco teachers and support employees total about $5-million, at a time when state officials have told school districts to prepare for revenue cuts of at least 5 percent, maybe twice that. Pasco's hit would be an estimated $15-million, at the low end.
If voters support changes to the property tax structure, as lawmakers propose, the district stands to see its income shrink about $55-million annually, Fiorentino told the School Board on Tuesday.
"The board needs to realize, not only is this a gloomy looking year, but next year looks even darker," Fiorentino said. The district's priority remains the classroom, but "we're talking a good piece of the pie here" by paying the step increases.
She told the board that her administration has taken several steps to stave off the pain. All nonschool hires are frozen, for instance, and everyone who runs a budget has been instructed to hold 10 percent in abeyance.
Meanwhile, the finance department continues to look for areas where the district can cut, and for recommendations of where lawmakers might trim the state budget without hurting the schools. The board is scheduled to meet with the Pasco legislative delegation on Aug. 16 to talk about the situation.
Board member Cathi Martin asked whether the district had any wiggle room to provide bigger raises for teachers. Perhaps, she said, it could dip into reserves.
"I don't want to lose teachers because of salary," Martin said.
Fiorentino and board member Frank Parker stressed that the district could ill afford to tap into its savings, which are hovering at about 5 percent of the budget, down from past years. The bond-rating agencies are watching.
"If our bond rating drops, what happens? We can still get money, but our interest rate goes up," Parker said, noting that such an effect would have implications for 20 years or more as the district pursues more bonds to pay for school construction.
If anything, Fiorentino added, the district's reserves must grow.
Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, said she was pleased and not surprised that the district will pay the raises. It was, after all, part of the teachers' contract.
When approached by chief finance officer Olga Swinson earlier in the summer, Webb said, she rejected postponing the pay increases until contract negotiations are complete.
"Our teachers are expecting those step increases when they come back and many of them have budgeted accordingly," Webb said.
To wait until the contract is sealed could mean waiting until November, she observed.
Fiorentino agreed that it wouldn't be fair to treat employees shabbily. So she and her leadership team worked it out so the contracted raises can take effect. The payroll department will begin processing the new pay rates immediately.
In other business:
- The board rejected a request from Dayspring Academy charter school to lower its administrative fees. Board members said the district needs a full discussion on charter school policy and should not deal with such requests individually.
- Vice chairwoman Kathryn Starkey called for a workshop to consider student uniforms. "I would make the argument that it costs too much not to do it," Starkey said.
- The board rejected a request from the Children's Cancer Center to sell bracelets as a fundraiser at schools. "As much as we would like to be, this board is not a philanthropic organization," chairwoman Marge Whaley said. "I think this might not be a door you want to open."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or 813 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.