Tensions high as Pinellas teachers, district spar over money

LARGO — Contract talks between the Pinellas County school district and the teachers union are not going well.

Frustrations boiled over as representatives for the two sides sparred Wednesday over the issue of extra pay for long-time district educators who have not accepted an annual contract in exchange for performance pay benefits. It’s an issue union president Nancy Velardi raised back in June.

Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association executive director Lindsey Blankenbaker
Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association executive director Lindsey Blankenbaker [ Courtesy of PCTA-PEPSA ]

Lindsey Blankenbaker, the union’s new executive director, did not hold back as she accused the district’s lead negotiators of refusing to bargain meaningfully over the issue.

“We have continually taken a stand for the veterans,” Blankenbaker said at one point in the session. “We need that same willingness to find a solution from the district, and not just continuous excuses as to why this is not workable.”

Associate superintendent Paula Texel responded by defending the district’s offer to the teachers, which includes an average pay raise of 3.25 percent and fully paid insurance. She repeated the administration’s position that the “longevity supplement” that the union has requested would not comply with state law.

“We do hear what you’re saying,” Texel said. “We are needing to follow the statute.”

Paula Texel is associate superintendent of human resources for Pinellas County Schools.
Paula Texel is associate superintendent of human resources for Pinellas County Schools. [ Pinellas County Schools ]

She asked the bargaining team for other ideas to direct pay to teachers, suggesting measures such as added money for training or planning. Chief finance officer Kevin Smith floated the possibility of a bonus instead of a supplement, something the union has rejected because of the tax implications.

The district did not make any formal proposals or make any moves to encourage more detailed discussion of the supplement versus bonus concept.

The request for more alternatives did not sit well with Blankenbaker, who contended the union has presented several proposals to dampen some of the inequities that teachers on continuing contracts confront over pay.

State lawmakers required a decade ago that all new teachers be placed on annual contracts, rather than ones that roll over from year to year. Teachers already working in districts did not have to switch over, but in avoiding being an at-will employee they would sacrifice certain raises based on their evaluations.

Velardi claimed that many veteran teachers refused to move because they are afraid their administrators could use the leverage of nonrenewal as a threat to prevent their advocacy. Until those fears can be abated, she said, the union is attempting to get the teachers more money as a way to keep them in classrooms.

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But the proposals “have been denied,” Blankenbaker said. “It’s not been meaningful discussion. … I’m feeling as though we’re missing the core problem here.”

Laurie Dart, the district’s lawyer, rejected the accusation. She argued that the union had made just one proposal for the longevity supplement, and its sole change was to add a clause that would end the payment after three years — the union’s attempt to blunt district concerns about creating an ongoing expense from the one-time source of federal pandemic relief funds.

“We’re fine with the contract as-is,” Dart said, adding that union proposals for more “prescriptive language” were objectionable to the district.

Related: Progress slow as Tampa Bay teachers, districts work out contracts

As the union representatives pressed their point, the district officials grew agitated, regularly checking their watches and occasionally interrupting to push back.

Velardi suggested at one point that the sides might benefit from sitting together for sessions that go longer than 90 minutes, so they can work through disagreements toward deals. Maybe a couple of daylong meetings might help, she said.

The union had asked for a four-hour meeting, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday. The district team agreed to sit down from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

At exactly 6 p.m., they packed up their materials and left the session.

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