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Prospect of pay cuts dismay magnet teachers

A proposed pay cut for magnet teachers at Pinellas County's most distinguished high school programs sparked anger and dismay Thursday while raising divisive questions about whether some teachers deserve more money than others.

Students and parents began e-mailing school officials protesting a 14 percent cut in a salary supplement earned by academic coaches at Gibbs, Lakewood, St. Petersburg and Palm Harbor University high schools.

As news about the cuts spread, teachers talked of retiring or cutting back their efforts.

"Everyone was just freaking out," said Sarah Hartney, 17, a junior at St. Petersburg High. "Without the extra pay, they're not going to be able to help us as much."

The cut would affect about 100 teachers, save about $700,000 and comes as the school district tries to make up a $26 million budget shortfall for next year.

Teachers have earned the supplement for years to help students in the academically rigorous international baccalaureate (IB) programs, the Center for Advanced Technologies (CAT) and the Pinellas County Center for the Arts (PCCA).

Teachers help students with everything from writing a 4,000-word senior essay to prepping for competitions where they can display their talents before college recruiters.

Scott Crawford's sons attend Gibbs' performing arts magnet program, and the oldest has won several scholarship offers because of those shows.

The teachers work an extra 25 to 35 percent "putting their heart and souls into those shows," he said. "I've seen shows so good that teachers are crying afterward. That tells you that it's not about the money, but they still shouldn't be taken advantage of."

But superintendent Julie Janssen said the cuts, as well as saving money, are a fairness issue. The four schools were home to the first magnet programs but as other ones were created, paying the supplement became too expensive, she said.

As a result, teachers at other magnet high school programs don't get the supplement; neither do teachers who do extra work. It's led some of them to complain that the supplement is favoritism, Janssen said.

Ryan Halstead, an IB history teacher at St. Petersburg High, acknowledged such tensions at his own school. "There's a lot of ignorance that all we're doing is acting as counselors."

For his extra $4,600, he forfeits a planning period to help students with the senior essay and a community service project required for graduation.

At least one School Board member said she supported the cuts.

"I believe it's a fairness and equity issue," said Linda Lerner, whose two children graduated from the IB program at St. Petersburg High. "I know it's not easy to decrease salaries for anyone. I wish we didn't have to do it, but I think we probably do."

Spanish teacher Gloria Munoz, a 26-year veteran of St. Petersburg High's IB program, said she works at least 15 extra hours a week at home. At her previous assignment, Osceola High, she took little work home.

"When I was hired, I was told we would have these extra duties," said Munoz, who guided one student for a year on a complicated senior project about the centuries-old influence of Arabic on the Spanish language.

"If I have the choice to teach traditional or IB for the same amount of money, I would take the traditional. I don't have to take papers home. I don't have the responsibility of helping anyone pass international exams," she said. "There's a lot of pressure on us as well as the students."

Bill Lawrence, who supervises magnet programs for the district, said IB programs around the country graduate students without extra mentoring.

But at Gibbs, academic coaches are compensated for after-hours rehearsals, performances and art exhibits.

"Rehearsals last three and four hours after school sometimes, Monday through Friday," said Crawford.

He worries the pay cuts might reduce teacher enthusiasm for competitions frequented by college recruiters.

Athletes go to all-star and playoff games, where scouts are watching, he noted, and the teachers who go along as coaches receive a supplement.

"How many fewer scholarships would be given to athletes if they couldn't do that?"

Times staff writers Ron Matus and Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. Steve Nohlgren can be reached at snolhgren@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8442.

Prospect of pay cuts dismay magnet teachers 05/14/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 14, 2010 1:18am]
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