Once in the top ten in the state for average teacher salaries, many Pinellas County teachers are bringing home less today than they did five years ago.
Pinellas has fallen to 17th place in the average teacher salary among the 67 districts and, two years ago, dipped as low as No. 20.
This, even as voters agreed to boost wages by paying additional taxes.
The average teacher salary in Florida is $45,723, with Pinellas hovering at $45,837 in 2010-11, according to the most current data available from the state.
While legislative funding cuts have impacted all districts in this sour economy, Pinellas school teachers have endured additional nibbles to their take-home pay due to declining student enrollment, increased health care costs and fluctuations in local property tax revenues that became tied to teacher salaries in 2005.
Add to that Florida's controversial mandate that public employees contribute 3 percent of their pay to retirement.
Teachers wrapped up classes last week and head into the summer with uncertainty over their pay and health care for 2012-13. Union officials are bearing down on district leaders to offer some income relief after 19 months of unyielding contract negotiations, while budget officials warn $14 million needs to be cut.
The two sides are embroiled in the longest period of union negotiations in the history of the school district, according to Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Kim Black.
Teachers say they know the economy has hit everyone hard.
But some argue the impact of further cuts and freezes on a field that already trails others that require similar educational credentials could be devastating.
"In this down economy," Black said, "they can't afford additional cuts."
There probably isn't a teacher in Pinellas who won't tell you how grateful they are for a half-mill property tax increase voters signed off on in 2004 and again in 2008 that partly benefits teacher pay.
The impact was approximately $3,000 more per year for teacher salaries. The first three years it was in place, it meant teacher pay got a year-over-year boost as property values rose.
It was a critical injection that made Pinellas more competitive and for the first time in four years pulled average teacher pay from below the state average to No. 10 in Florida.
But as the economy started to go south, local officials froze the pay scale after the 2007-08 school year. Since then, the tax revenues have dropped three times and, with further cuts from the state, teacher pay has declined annually.
Since 2009, Ricky Amstutz and wife Christine, both teachers, have witnessed their combined household income drop by more than $2,000, according to their income tax records.
It has made Ricky Amstutz, like many others, a gifted grocery shopper.
"We keep it pretty lean around here," said Christine, a second-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater. "Rick is the coupon king."
A retired U.S. Navy veteran, he has considered turning to military contract work for a more lucrative way to support his family.
With 51 years of teaching experience between them, the Amstutzes have made conscious choices to remain public educators focusing instead on one of the perks of teaching still intact: the chance to spend summer with their two kids.
In 2010-11, after freezing the salary scale, Pinellas County agreed to reinstate pay raises for employees based on years of service and educational attainment.
But most teachers you talk to say that after other cuts they didn't see that average 1.5 percent bump at all.
"News to me," wrote elementary music teacher Benjamin Jarvis in one of several emails to the Tampa Bay Times following a news story that cited the step increase.
Jarvis, who has eight years of experience according to the salary schedule, calculated that after all the cuts, his school district salary will have taken a $1,000 chomp by the end of the 2011-12 school year.
For the last six months, Pinellas schools superintendent John Stewart has been looking for ways to cut expenses in order to, he says, increase dollars flowing to the classroom. Some of those measures, such as curbing access to classroom printers, have rankled teachers who feel the shifts further eroding the few classroom comforts they have and impacting their bottom line.
It's hard to win.
Black, the union president, is pushing for a pay increase, but Stewart's team has their eyes trained on reducing health insurance costs to pay for it.
Compounding problems, revenues from the local property tax are expected to be down again by $131 per teacher, school finance official Keven Smith said, lowering the supplement from $2,983 to $2,852, the smallest contribution since the first year teachers got the additional pay in 2005-06.
A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that in 2003, even before the recession hit, the average weekly pay for teachers was 14 percent below that of workers with similar experience and education, further discouraging top college graduates from pursuing the field.
When Dina Hensley, 43, entered the teaching profession six years ago, she felt assured of steady income growth.
Hensley's starting pay in Pinellas was $36,000 in 2006-07, but the district's salary schedule that year promised a reliable, annual climb based on experience and educational attainment.
Six years in, the reality is far different for this fourth-grade teacher who just closed out another school year at Largo's Southern Oak Elementary. Hensley's contracted pay is up 4.6 percent to $37,673, but that growth has been subject to stops and starts — two small bumps, two years of frozen salaries and two years of cuts due to the lower tax revenues.
Hensley says she's one of the lucky ones. Had she started her job just one year later, her contracted salary would have actually dropped by $74 by now.
"I thank God I got in when I did," Hensley said.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]