DOVER — They came from advanced placement history and physics, math and English, chemistry and culinary arts.
Facing certain punishment, about 15 students at Strawberry Crest High School walked out of first period classes on Tuesday to protest the Hillsborough school district’s decision to deny scheduled pay raises for teachers this year.
Several had already been given in-school suspension forms by the time they walked to the front gate. Most wore black in solidarity.
"It’s technically skipping, but at the same time it’s kind of worth it because these teachers are losing money," said Amber Hatton, a 15-year-old sophomore who helped organize the walkout. "We’re giving up our time for them so they can have support. They give us so much. They educate us."
The student walkout is the latest front in a campaign to persuade the district to go forward with the raises.
At the last bargaining session with the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, district negotiators said it would cost $17 million to give roughly a third of the 14,000 teachers raises of $4,000, which they get every three years if they have high enough evaluation scores.
District leaders say money is tight and they are trying to avoid layoffs. The union says they should re-examine other spending, including the growing number of administrators earning more than $100,000 a year.
Emails are going out to the School Board, superintendent Jeff Eakins and the media. Teachers have picketed outside Steinbrenner High. They are encouraging one another to "work the contract, " meaning only when school is in session.
Eakins, in an interview, said he understands their frustration. "Never, as a superintendent would you want anyone to feel that way, that they’re not valued or not respected," he said.
For three years, he said, district leaders honored the pay plan even though money was tight because they wanted each teacher to experience a full three-year cycle with the chance for a raise.
That meant spending an additional $38 million last year while state revenues grew by only $5 million "and that $5 million is probably all washed up in growth anyway."
As much as he would like to please the teachers, Eakins said, "we just do not have the revenue from the state right now to match what the expectation is around increases in pay. We have to, for the long term, get our financial situation right."
Caleb Bowman, a junior at Strawberry Crest, thought the issue was important enough to skip chemistry class. "Our teachers are our source of knowledge and they’re the ones that set us up for success so I don’t think it’s right they’re not getting the raise they should," he said. "Honestly, I feel they deserve a lot more than what they get."
Principal David Brown discouraged the students from walking out, both in messages sent home as word spread on Monday, and as the event began Tuesday morning.
"I made it very clear to students that disruption of the school day is not something we can have," Brown said. "There are other ways to show your support. You can go to the School Board meeting, you can do something before school, but once you make the decision to walk out, unfortunately there will be consequences because now you’re skipping and disrupting the school day."
Brown said punishment will be meted out depending on a student’s past disciplinary record. The penalty could range from lunch detention to out-of-school suspension.
The demonstrators said students at other schools are planning walkouts for Wednesday.
"Don’t let your administration scare you out of doing it," said Destiny Cattery, the 16-year-old daughter of a teacher. "It’s for a good cause, so stand up for your teachers. They’ve been standing up for us."
Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.