LAND O’ LAKES — Pay raises and smoking policies are becoming sticking points in contract negotiations between the Pasco County school district and the school employees’ union.
Officials with United School Employees of Pasco accused district negotiators Thursday of backpedaling on a commitment to 2 percent pay raises for teachers and other school workers, offering instead increases of about 1 percent that would cost the district slightly more than $3 million.
“It makes one wonder, how does $7.2 million (for raises) dissipate into $3 million in approximately two weeks?” the union’s president, Kenny Blankenship, said in a prepared statement. “Where did it go? Up in smoke?”
Betsy Kuhn, the district’s employee relations director, disputed Blankenship’s take on the situation, saying the money didn’t disappear because the district never had $7.2 million budgeted for raises. Instead, she said, that number represents how much 2 percent raises would cost, but providing them would create a budget deficit.
Olga Swinson, the district’s chief finance officer, explained that Tuesday during negotiation sessions, Kuhn said.
“I do think it’s interesting Mr. Blankenship is saying he wonders where the $7.2 million went because that was addressed specifically,” Kuhn said. “We never had $7.2 million to use for raises and he knows that.”
Kuhn said that doesn’t mean 2 percent raises are an impossibility, but the union would need to work with the district on spending priorities, including health insurance costs and a proposal to eliminate early-retirement incentives.
The union also is unhappy with a district proposal to put an end to employee smoking areas in schools that were built before 1996.
Under the current contract, schools built since July 1, 1996, don’t allow smoking anywhere on campus, but schools built before that date can have designated outdoor smoking areas for employees. To make those schools smoke-free requires a 100 percent vote of the staff.
The district wants to change that so all schools would be smoke-free, but union officials said there’s no need. They issued a statement saying in 18 years they have not heard any complaints about the employees who smoke on those campuses, and the district’s proposal would eliminate “another contractual right, which will leave employees hanging ‘cold turkey.’”
Assistant Superintendent Ray Gadd said this isn’t a case of the district setting out to eliminate anyone’s rights. Instead, he said, a group of students who are advocates against tobacco approached the district about changing the policy. Some of those students sat in on the contract negotiations, he said.
“We heard their pleas to look at this policy,” Gadd said. “We think it makes good sense to tackle this policy.”
In 1996, the district recognized employees who smoked couldn’t immediately quit, Gadd said, but in the 18 years since then they have had ample opportunity to participate in smoking-cessation programs.
He also said the policy wouldn’t have to change immediately at the beginning of the school year, but instead could be handled in a way to give smokers time to prepare.
“If the union were to say, ‘How about if we agree to implement it Jan. 1,’ or something, I would be tickled pink,” Gadd said. “But they haven’t done that.”