BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando School District is clawing its way up from the bottom in a statewide ranking of teacher pay.
Local teachers earn an average salary of $42,681, or 41st among 67 counties, according to data just released by the state Department of Education. That's an improvement from 45th last year.
Just five years ago, Hernando ranked 62nd in the state. The year before that, 63rd.
Much has happened since then, of course. Plummeting property values and cuts to education funding have prompted many school districts to put off raises for the last several years.
In the last four years, the average pay of a Florida teacher has decreased $1,199, from $46,922 to $45,723. Over the same time period in Hernando County, however, the average salary increased by $1,928.
Several factors contributed to that progress, school officials said.
One is the automatic annual raise built into the teacher union contract three years ago — a deal struck as a direct result of the district's dismal salary ranking.
Teachers traditionally had received the raise in past years, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. The new language ensured the raises would continue, even in hard economic times.
Teachers got another boost at the same time when the district agreed to collapse the salary schedule, reducing the number of steps based on years of experience.
There is a circular phenomenon going on here, too, Vitalo said. The uptick in average salaries is helping attract more experienced teachers to Hernando and prompting teachers already here to stay instead of leaving for better paying districts. The more experienced the staff, the higher the average salary.
"We're no longer a training ground for other counties, or at least not as much as we were," Vitalo said. "What we're trying to show is that you can make a career here."
Pasco County, for example, passed Hernando on the average salary ranking about two decades ago and started to attract Hernando teachers. This year, Hernando is just one notch below Pasco and will likely pass its southern neighbor by next year, Vitalo said.
While the salary improvement is encouraging news, the challenge will be to continue to climb — or even hold steady — even as funding continues to decline, Blavatt said. The district still ranks near the bottom in state ranking for per-pupil funding, he noted.
And local teachers have taken hits on top of the 3 percent that will now be taken from the paycheck of every public employee for the state pension fund. During budget talks this summer, the Hernando union agreed to forgo that raise for the first half of the school year with the possibility of receiving the increase retroactively if the financial picture brightens. If the opposite happens, the union has agreed to give up two paid contract days.
"You have to give the teachers association credit for understanding the situation," Blavatt said.
"The reality," he said, "is teachers are never paid what they should be paid, anywhere."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.