BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County teachers can now make a claim they haven't been able to make in decades:
Their salaries are no longer the lowest in Tampa Bay.
For the first time in more than 20 years, the average teacher salary in Hernando has surpassed that of teachers in Pasco County — although not by much.
The average Hernando teacher made $43,442 for the 2011-2012 year, while the average Pasco teacher made $42,595, according to the statistics from the Florida Department of Education.
Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, was ecstatic when he heard the news recently.
"That means we have a fighting chance at getting the best and the brightest while retaining ours," he said. "For years, we were losing people to Pasco. For years, we had a brain drain."
He called it a "great recruiting tool."
But Pasco officials weren't getting too worked up about the $847 difference.
"I don't know how critical it is," said United School Employees of Pasco business representative Jim Ciadella. "We're competitive."
He also said it's important to look at the whole compensation package, not just salary.
"We've got things here that keep people here a long time," Ciadella said. "I don't think they're going to be running north of the border."
Pasco County School District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe agreed.
"If you have a positive work environment and a supportive administration, that couple of hundred dollars a year is not going to make a difference," she said.
She said the district would like to pay teachers more and intends to set aside money to do just that in the upcoming budget.
Pasco and Hernando both lag behind Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in average teacher salaries. Last school year, Pinellas teachers averaged $44,185, while Hillsborough teachers averaged $45,016.
Hernando teacher salaries have increased dramatically in recent years as it climbed from being one lowest-paying counties in the state to near the middle of the pack.
The average Hernando teacher salary for the 2005-2006 school year ranked 63 out of Florida's 67 counties.
For the most recent year, Hernando ranked 35th and Pasco 44th.
A couple factors contributed significantly to that increase, Vitalo said.
One is the automatic annual raise built into teacher contracts four years ago — a deal struck in large part because of the district's low salary ranking.
That language ensured teachers would get raises, even in hard economic times. So although the average teacher salary in Florida has decreased by roughly $450 since the deal was made, in Hernando it has increased by nearly $1,650.
Teachers got another boost at the same time when the district agreed to collapse the salary schedule. This means they reach the top of the salary range in fewer years.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt is pleased Hernando's teacher salaries are on the rise, saying he wants them to be paid equitably and adequately.
"I'd like to think that we recognize the quality of the folks that we have and are compensating them appropriately," he said.
But he did throw some cold water on the average salary. It's important to look at salaries for new teachers, as well, he said.
"My concern is the starting teacher salaries," Blavatt said.
He said Hernando doesn't fare as well in this category compared with surrounding areas.
Blavatt said he'd like to bring up those salaries, leveling out some of the other ones.
"We're an aging profession," he said. "We need to start bringing in some young blood."
"That's where we build for the future."
Danny Valentine can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes on Twitter.