Few complained when the Pasco County School District and its staff union agreed in August to the largest increases they had seen in years.
Employees would see average pay increases of around 5.4%, with several workers in line for much larger increases than that. The deal was one of the best in Florida, with more promise to come thanks to a recently passed property tax referendum that begins next year.
Then the checks with the raises started showing up in the employees’ accounts. And they saw that, after taxes and other deductions, the amount was not as useful as they had hoped with inflation.
Words like ‘slap in the face’ and ‘how can we fight this?’ started popping up in social media conversations between workers and their friends. Some said the increase in health insurance premiums for district employees negated the pay rise.
“Teachers and staff are actually worse off than they were 5 years ago,” social studies professor John Tisi said in a Facebook comment.
Assistant Superintendent for Administration Kevin Shibley noted the district paid an additional $31.66 per month for health insurance premiums. At the same time, he acknowledged that the cost for anyone taking more than the basic HMO program had increased further.
Employees using the HMO premium plan for themselves would pay an additional $35.25 every two weeks, while workers who enroll in the PPO plan for their spouse and children would pay an additional $103.22 per paycheck. The increases varied depending on the plan chosen, the number of family members covered and the pay frequency.
Shibley explained that prices have risen for “buy-out” plans because that’s where most claims have come in and the district’s health insurance deficit is growing.
In March, district officials alerted the board that its self-insurance policy was running millions of dollars in the red, largely due to illnesses related to the coronavirus. Average claims rose 6% last year and 15% the year before, according to the district.
After further review with an actuary, they projected a deficit of $10.6 million for fiscal year 2023 if nothing changed.
“The district’s loss reserve would not be able to absorb this type of loss, and it is critical that the insurance program be financially stable and able to cover its annual expenses with available recurring annual revenue,” Shibley said. .
Federal pandemic relief funds have helped offset some of the past spending, but that money is not expected to be available again.
They warned the board that action needed to be taken to balance the budget, and these could include targeted bonus increases. And that’s what happened.
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The district insurance committee recommended revamping the plan by reducing projected future claims by $3.9 million, increasing board contributions by $3.6 million and increasing “buyouts.” for the non-base plan to generate $3.1 million.
“We had to adapt,” said United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace, who sits on the committee. “We did not consider it fair to penalize the free pass” which did not lead to overruns.
“If you cost us more, you should pay a little more,” Peace said.
He argued that the employee offers were generous, given the limits on district funding and the reality of the rising cost of living. He noted that Pasco’s health insurance premium increases were lower than other districts and argued that the district was holding the line as best it could.
“Maybe it will be a one-year hit because of COVID,” he said. “Hopefully we can adjust it next year.”
School board member Alison Crumbley said she would consider that option, if possible. She, like her board colleagues, hadn’t heard much about the financial troubles from staff, but said she wasn’t surprised.
“The cost of living is going up,” Crumbley said, citing higher prices for milk, eggs and gasoline as other examples people face on a daily basis.
She said the board discussed the need to improve its pay scale, particularly to address the squeeze that has occurred among new and old staff. He also made clear his desire to further improve salaries for all employees, she added.
“At least we went in the right direction,” Crumbley said, referring to the raise agreement, which still needs to be ratified. “But am I satisfied? Nope.”
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