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Pinellas backs away from cuts to magnet teacher pay

The Pinellas school district has quietly postponed a controversial plan to cut extra pay for teachers in four advanced high school programs.

Superintendent Julie Janssen said Friday that long-range plans for the hefty salary supplements — equal to 14 percent of a teacher's pay — will continue to be a topic for discussion and future contract negotiations. But teachers who have supplements will not see them vanish this fall, as district officials had said they would in May.

"They're going to get (the supplements)," Janssen said.

"It's going to be a big relief," said Carol Mathis, an International Baccalaureate teacher at St. Petersburg High. "For a lot of teachers . . . it was going to be a significant hardship."

"Academic coaching supplements" have been doled out for years to teachers in four marquee magnet programs: the IB programs at St. Petersburg High and Palm Harbor University High; the Center for Advanced Technologies at Lakewood; and the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs. The teachers are required to do extra work, and many using planning periods to counsel students on special projects.

Last year, 93 teachers received the extra pay, at a total cost to the district of $650,000. Individuals earned $5,181 to $8,971 more.

District officials said they needed the cuts to help reduce a $26 million budget deficit. But Janssen said she backed away for several reasons:

The supplements for three of the programs — all but the arts center at Gibbs — are included in the district contract with the teachers union. Cutting them would require negotiations, and the timing wasn't right with furloughs and other bigger issues on the table, Janssen said.

Meanwhile, the magnet teachers needed to know, as they were putting together next year's schedules, whether they would be working during their planning periods, she said.

"We really felt we couldn't tie their hands at this point," Janssen said.

The district's out-of-the-blue announcement in May launched a divisive debate.

The magnet teachers and their supporters were outraged. But so were teachers who don't receive the supplements. In many cases, teachers didn't realize the supplements existed. As tensions mounted, IB teachers even made a case for their supplements to be considered separately, since the IB programs generate more than $1 million a year for the district.

Ryan Halstead, another IB teacher at St. Petersburg High, said the district deserves credit for at least seeking input after its initial decision. Janssen, for example, met with IB teachers and union representatives three weeks ago.

"The district realized it really did not handle the situation well" in the beginning, Halstead said. "I applaud the fact that the district went back and evaluated."

The decision to postpone the cuts was made with so little fanfare that even some teachers didn't know.

The supplements appeared on at least two district lists of proposed cuts, but not on a more-or-less final list that was presented to the school board last week. It also did not appear on a list of proposed changes that the district presented to the union at a collective bargaining session Thursday.

Dara Vance, a visual arts teacher at Gibbs, said the continuation of the supplement means she no longer needs to look for a part-time job and can still devote time after school and on weekends to her students. "I would have had to walk out the door at 2:30 and say to my students, 'I can't help you,' " she said.

But the reprieve is "very tenuous," Vance added, given the budget problems and the difficulty in getting data to show that the supplements translate into higher student achievement.

"How do I prove that because I spent extra time with my students, they got into a better college or got more scholarship money?" she said

Janssen said it's not clear why the contract does not mention the supplements at Gibbs. But she said they would not be singled out without a full discussion about all the supplements.

Board member Carol Cook cautioned that while the supplements are "off the table for now," they won't be next year when the district will be wrestling with an even bigger deficit of $54 million.

"If there are other ways of meeting those needs, then we need to explore that," Cook said.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas backs away from cuts to magnet teacher pay 07/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 17, 2010 12:44am]

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