BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County teachers on Tuesday got something almost unheard-of in Florida this year: a raise.
The School Board voted 5-0 to ratify a contract Tuesday night that would give teachers a 2.39 percent average pay increase for the current year, plus 1.5 percent more to cover health care increases. Non-teaching staff will see comparable raises of 2.37 percent along with the health care boost.
All five board members had said they support the raise, despite the looming fiscal storm clouds.
"To get an increase in your salary at all is quite amazing," said superintendent Wayne Alexander, estimating it as one of the largest raises in all of Florida's 67 counties.
At last count, just 18 of those counties have approved raises, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers' Union. Hillsborough County has managed a 2 percent raise for teachers, but Pasco is at an impasse and Pinellas is still in negotiations.
How did Hernando do it?
By dipping deep into its reserves, among other things. Under the new budget, just 1.2 percent of its general fund will be set aside for emergencies. That's a far cry from the 2.7 percent in the fund last year, or the 2.5 percent the state recommends.
But Alexander said he can't abide squirreling away money that could be used to help the district attract and retain teachers.
"As a board, we spend what we have to improve education," he said. "It makes me nervous, but historically this board has never had a large fund balance."
The district has been told to expect up to 4 percent in state cuts over the next three months, said finance director Deborah Bruggink. Anything steeper than that would require program cuts or layoffs.
But the declining economy means it might be even harder to manage raises next year, so now's the time to do it if there's money, said newly elected board member James Yant.
And officials saw it as a chance to close the distance between Hernando and higher paying districts to the south. Under the new deal, a beginning teacher will earn $35,000 in the county, up from just $30,000 in 2006.
Last spring the board settled on a 5.5 percent raise for Alexander, after haggling over his initial request of a 14 percent pay boost.
A record 71 percent of eligible teachers turned out to vote on the contract last week, and 91 percent voted to ratify it, Vitalo said.
"They do understand that we're still going to be behind (other districts)," he added. "But they understand what the climate is like, they understand the difficulties. They realize we can't close the gap all in one shot."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.