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Tampa teachers grateful but wary as Scott touts pay-raise plan

Gov. Rick Scott, center, with Hillsborough County School District superintendent MaryEllen Elia, left, talks to people Thursday at Twin Lakes Elementary after highlighting his proposal to raise pay by $2,500 for public school teachers in his 2013 budget.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Gov. Rick Scott, center, with Hillsborough County School District superintendent MaryEllen Elia, left, talks to people Thursday at Twin Lakes Elementary after highlighting his proposal to raise pay by $2,500 for public school teachers in his 2013 budget.

TAMPA — Well before 7 a.m., the staff at Twin Lakes Elementary School was picking up, sprucing up and cleaning up for Gov. Rick Scott's visit on Thursday.

"We have a beautiful campus, but it's just like going to the ball," said principal Edith Lefler. "You have to dress it up a little bit, too."

Especially when the guest of honor comes bearing gifts.

"We are always open to having you here, especially when you are bringing money," Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia told Scott as she introduced him.

The welcome revealed the mixed reaction to Scott's announcement this week that he hopes to give every public school teacher a $2,500 yearly pay raise. Many are skeptical, even the governor's fellow Republicans. But how many people would turn down a raise?

"We're going to double down on our billion-dollar investment in education," Scott said at Twin Lakes, using a phrase he has invoked frequently.

The reward comes after two lean years. Education spending was slashed in 2011, the governor's first year in office. "We had to make some hard choices to get our economy back on track," he said Thursday.

Funding was partly restored in 2012, but teachers effectively took a 3 percent pay cut that year when they were required to contribute to their pensions.

They also were hit with an evaluation system that is based in part on how their students score on standardized tests.

Scott said the improved economy makes the pay raises possible. His economists are forecasting a $2.1 billion surplus. Of that, he'd like to use $480 million for the teacher raises.

Some Democrats and union leaders have suggested Scott is trying to curry political favor as he looks to what could be a difficult campaign for re-election.

Lawmakers in his own party, meanwhile, have asked how he'll take care of other public sector workers who have gone without raises, and whether he's backtracking on teacher accountability.

Scott insisted Thursday that there will be more money in the budget beyond what he has proposed for the teachers.

And, though the raises would not be tied directly to individual student performance, Scott said he is holding teachers accountable — collectively.

He cited several recent studies that favored Florida's teachers and students, including one that ranked the state's fourth-grade readers second in the world.

"We do have measurement," he said.

At Twin Lakes, Lefler, the principal, said the response has been positive.

"Any time we're a little skeptical when something is announced by a politician," she said. "But do we like the plan? Yes. I think the teachers appreciate getting a well-deserved raise."

Some teachers said they are waiting to see how committed Scott is to getting the plan through the Legislature.

"We'll see if it passes, how's that?" said Susan Pickett, who teaches exceptional student education. "If it passes, then it's good faith. Otherwise … we'll wait and see."

Others said the response has been largely colored by politics.

Lynda Renner, a Republican who voted for Scott, said, "I think, depending on how you view things in the past, anything that he would do that would be good for teachers could be looked at as throwing a bone."

But she said she has no trouble accepting a raise, now that the economy is recovering, as a reward for going through the frugality of the past two years.

"If it's good for us, then it's good for kids, period," she said. "Throw us the bone."

There's no doubt the raises are deserved, Elia said.

"Our teachers here perform at a high level," she said. "We're getting results even in these tough times."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

Tampa teachers grateful but wary as Scott touts pay-raise plan 01/24/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 12:16am]

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