TAMPA — Responding to a week-long "work the contract" protest by Hillsborough County school teachers, superintendent Jeff Eakins said Wednesday he is confident the students will not suffer.
"I trust our teachers are doing right by kids today," Eakins told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.
Concerned about stalled pay talks, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association has asked its members to work only during their contracted hours as an illustration of the extra labor they normally perform after hours.
Eakins said he realizes "there are certain tactics and strategies that people use" in a labor dispute. These include recruiting hundreds of teachers to protest the Nov. 14 School Board meeting.
"I got an email last night from a teacher who said, ‘This is why I am not working the contract,’" Eakins said. "This is how I feel about my kids. I don’t want to come in and have my kids think I’m giving them less."
Eakins opened Wednesday’s session touting progress the district has made in raising high school graduation rates, shrinking the number of F-rated schools, decreasing suspensions and preparing students for jobs in local industry.
"We’re getting results while tackling tough issues," he said.
He also noted that the district is just weeks away from naming 20 schools that will take part in Bold Beginnings, a new initiative that will add preschool classes to under-enrolled, inner-city schools to ensure more kids are ready for kindergarten.
When asked about the teacher dispute, Eakins noted gains teachers made in 2013, as the district implemented reforms in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
On average, Eakins said, those switching to a new pay plan that year saw raises of $6,000.
"It was a pay forward raise, if you think of it that way, because the district didn’t have the money to do that," Eakins said.
Districtwide, teacher pay grew by $65 million over the next two years. Performance bonuses, required by the state, boosted that amount to $77 million.
The district had to raid its reserves to meet the June payroll in 2015, around the time Eakins took over. Since then, he has phased out more than 1,000 jobs and cut school busing to dig out of a spending deficit of more than $100 million a year.
Despite those cuts, Eakins said, "our teachers have been positioned very well." On average, they out-earn their counterparts in Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Manatee counties at more than $49,000 a year.
While base pay is capped at $66,200, he said, some teachers earned more than $100,000 last year by taking on extra responsibilities. Eakins said 282 earned $80,000 or more.
Entering this year’s negotiations, Eakins said the district agreed to a number of requests, including free health insurance and pay supplements at the highest-poverty schools. "We’re looking at our budget and we’re looking at what we can do and we’ve said yes, yes, yes, yes," he said.
The sticking point was a $4,000 raise teachers under the new plan get every three years if they earn satisfactory ratings.
"We don’t have, at this point in time, the money to get to that next yes," he said.
Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teachers’ union, rejected Eakins’ explanation.
"What he has agreed to are things that exist in writing, in the contract and can be enforced in a court of law," she said.
While negotiations have not reached an impasse, Baxter-Jenkins said, "he is not proposing anything. He’s just dragging his feet for the purpose of dragging his feet."
As for Eakins’ description of high-earning teachers, she said, "even if there are 282 people making more than $80,000, that’s a tiny percentage."
The Times asked Eakins, given the financial disaster that followed the Gates project, whether he would agree it was a mistake.
His answer: "We still are utilizing many things that we learned. Teacher practice, I believe, is better."
But in hindsight, he said, it was important to make sure early on that the district had a plan to sustain the program after the grant ran out. "You don’t enter into grants that you don’t know how to bridge off of," he said. Without an exit plan, "that’s doom for it."
Eakins also was asked about his decision to cut the ribbon on the new SLAM charter school, which is managed by the for-profit Academica firm, hours before he faced angry teachers at the Nov. 14 board meeting. Union leaders are especially resentful of privately managed charter schools, which typically use non-union labor.
Eakins said it was largely a matter of equity.
"I am the superintendent of the Hillsborough County Public Schools," he said. "I hold charter schools just as accountable as I hold other schools in this district. If someone invites me to a traditional public school ribbon cutting, I will be there. If someone invites me to a charter school ribbon cutting, I will be there. I cannot be a superintendent to some and not all."
What’s more, he said, "I am telling all schools, they should learn from each other."
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol
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Hear Wednesday’s discussion between the Tampa Bay Times editorial board and school superintendent Jeff Eakins.