Pinellas teachers ask for major raise. ‘Be realistic,’ district says.

Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | July 21, 2022

LARGO — Citing inflationary pressures among the highest in the nation, Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association leaders on Thursday asked the school district for an 11.3% raise.

The request matches the county’s cost of living index increase over the past year, union president Nancy Velardi said. It would show teachers the district’s commitment to them at a time when living here has become more difficult to afford.

“We really need to make them stay in Pinellas,” Velardi said of teachers, noting the district has nearly 300 vacant instructional positions with two weeks before classes resume. “We need to make it worth their while.”

Officials representing the school district acknowledged the need to remain competitive for what has become a shrinking number of job candidates, while also retaining the existing faculty.

“We are sitting here trying to figure out what it is that we can do,” said assistant superintendent Paula Texel, who observed that neighboring Hillsborough and Pasco counties are trying to compete with property tax referendums similar to the one Pinellas has had in place for 18 years.

The Pinellas referendum, which voters renewed in 2020 with 80% support, provides teachers $5,734 a year toward their salaries.

Laurie Dart, the district’s lawyer, said the union’s request would cost close to $53 million. The district’s finance team calculated that the budget has about $18.4 million available for raises for all employees, not just teachers.

“So let’s be realistic based on the data,” Dart told the teacher negotiating team.

She urged negotiators to look at the district’s financial presentation for any inaccuracies or places where more money might be shifted to maximize raises.

Union executive director Lindsey Blankenbaker pointed to the reserves, where she said the district has set aside millions of dollars, exceeding the percentage required by state law. Reserves are supposed to be for a financial rainy day, Blankenbaker said.

“It’s pouring,” she said. “If we ever needed a reserve, it’s to keep teachers in our classrooms.”

Chief finance officer Kevin Smith said the district needs its reserves to offset unforeseen expenses. Beyond that, he added, teacher pay is an ongoing cost, but once reserves are spent, they’re gone.

“There is no disagreement that we need to raise (salaries),” Dart said. “The question is how. … We will give as much as we can fiscally, responsibly give.”

The sides agreed to review the numbers and return to the table. They said they would like to conclude bargaining by the end of September.

Last year, teachers received an average 3.25 percent raise, which the union did not dispute as it tried instead to get more money for veteran educators. This year, Velardi said, it will fight for more.

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