Pinellas teachers reach contract deal for 4.25% average raises

LARGO — Pinellas County teachers are on track to get more money in their paychecks before winter break, after representatives for their bargaining unit and the school district reached a contract deal late Wednesday.

The deal, which still requires approval by the School Board and teachers, would pay an average raise of 4.25%. The district also would cover the full increase in health insurance premiums and provide two additional paid planning days.

Teachers with 10 or more years of experience with the district also would receive one-time bonuses, in order to boost their increase closer to the average. Those with 10 to 19 years would get $735, and those with 20 or more years would get $1,000.

“What that ends up doing is making more equitable the total increase,” said Lindsey Blankenbaker, Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association executive director.

She noted that state law limits the raises that veteran teachers on continuing contracts may receive in comparison to those on annual contracts. The issue caused lengthy delays when the sides negotiated a year ago.

Related: Pinellas teachers, district settle contract after 8 months of talks

This time around, the negotiators at to avoid a similar dispute. The district put $3 million toward the added bonuses.

Even so, the deal almost fell apart.

After nearly an hour of talks, primarily relating to language about the responsibilities of guidance counselors and other specialized clinical professionals, Blankenbaker noticed that the district had included a different base starting salary on its documents than what the sides had previously discussed.

They had arrived at the figure of $50,568 at a past session. The papers listed the pay as $51,000. The difference totaled around $172,000.

Union president Nancy Velardi noted that when she asked in the past for a similar amount to cover certain expenses for veteran educators, the district officials said they could not afford it.

“We believed you and didn’t ask again,” Velardi said. “Now you are saying you are willing to do extra money for people who aren’t even here yet.”

She suggested the change could prove a deal-breaker for teachers who struggle to make ends meet in high inflationary times. Laurie Dart, a district staff attorney, said the administration understood the point but “we need to be competitive with our neighbors.”

The sides broke for private conversations at that point. They returned after about 40 minutes.

And the district decided to back down from its stance, associate superintendent Paula Texel announced.

“Are we in agreement?” she asked, after describing the revised proposal. “We are,” Velardi said.

They then signed the necessary paperwork to start the contract ratification process. The School Board is set to consider the deal on Nov. 15, and teachers are to vote on the proposal next week.

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“We are very excited to have this agreement so our employees can get their very well-deserved raise, as well as retro (pay), prior to winter break,” Texel said. “That was a priority for us.”

Velardi was equally enthusiastic. She said the deal was the best the team could get for the teachers, and sounded hopeful for more good things to come.

“We had real negotiations,” she said, reflecting on the district‘s inflexibility of previous years. “I do think that we are looking at a better future in bargaining.”

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