Let the bidding war begin.
The Pinellas County school system reached an agreement with the teachers union this week to increase starting teacher pay to $40,000 a year, vaulting the district to the top of the Tampa Bay region and outpacing the national average.
The move, which superintendent Mike Grego pushed in an effort to recruit teachers, could have ripple effects throughout Tampa Bay and Florida. Neighboring school districts, which have battled for the best teachers in years past, are watching. Hillsborough and Hernando still are negotiating salaries for the 2013-14 school year. Pasco pushed its entry level pay to $37,000 this year, and if past years serve as any indicator, it could try to outdo Pinellas in its next go-round.
"I hope this is going to mark the beginning of more competitive teacher salaries, like we had eight to nine years ago," said Lynne Webb, president of the Pasco teachers union.
Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, called it a "huge move" for Pinellas and said he thinks there will be ramifications statewide.
"I think it will set a goal for other districts," he said.
Most of Florida's biggest school districts fell short of $40,000 last year. Hillsborough paid $37,569 a year, while Pinellas paid $37,000 a year. Broward County paid $39,000; Palm Beach County, $38,000; and Orange County, $37,000.
Only Miami-Dade schools hit the $40,000 mark.
Grego said he wanted to move away from the old system in which it took a new Pinellas teacher more than a decade to reach $40,000 a year. Under the new system, which still must be approved by the School Board and ratified by the union, a teacher stands to earn about $19,000 more in his or her first seven years of teaching, despite earning exactly $40,000 each year.
"That's where we're losing so many teachers," Grego said.
Nationwide, teacher turnover tends to be high in the early years, said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. Nearly half of all teachers leave the profession in the first five years alone.
Bumping new teacher pay to $40,000 — above the $35,000 national average — could be a "game-changer," Ingersoll said.
"But it's not the whole picture," he said.
Research shows that teachers value their working conditions, often more so than salary. In recent years, an increased focus on testing and accountability has caused many teachers to complain about a lack of classroom autonomy — and that has sent some teachers packing, he said.
"The first to complain are the really good and really creative teachers," he said.
Packing more money into the early years can be a boon for recruitment, but "it doesn't improve retention," he said. Teacher turnover tends to be a "U-shape," he said. Quite a few teachers leave in the beginning and near the end of their careers. Money plays a role at both ends, he said.
Webb said she thinks the $40,000 starting salary could "start the bidding war." But she said the higher salary would most benefit teachers who live in Pinellas and don't face long commutes. Otherwise, she said, gas prices and other expenses eat up the difference quickly.
One of the biggest complaints about the new salary schedule in Pinellas is that it favors new or less-experienced teachers over veterans.
According to the school district, 994 teachers are in the highest three levels of the pay scale — which will now top out at $61,300 a year. Those teachers will get raises between $1,000 and $2,226.
At the other end, where salaries will start at $40,000 a year, about 1,000 teachers in the first three years will get raises between $2,905 and $3,000.
Jay Gordon told district administrators in an email that after 13 years of teaching he earns "a shade over $40,000" — and now a teacher with one year of experience will earn the same.
"If/when dedicated teachers leave for another career where they're treated like they matter, decisions like the one you just made will have had heavy influence," he wrote.
Valerie Balducci, a teacher with 37 years of experience, wrote that she, too, was disappointed by the new agreement, which gives her a smaller raise than teachers with less experience.
"I feel I am being penalized for my years of dedication," she wrote.
Grego said the change isn't meant to hurt veteran teachers. He wants to provide more money next year to some of the teachers who benefited the least this year. But he said that he and the School Board felt that a higher starting salary was "critical."
"We took one great step this year," he said. "We're going to work to take another next year."
Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Lisa Gartner contributed to this report. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.