Along Interstate 95 in Jacksonville, the billboard beckons teachers: "Your future is in our classroom," it says.
That's right. The Fort Worth school district needs teachers, and it has its eyes on Florida, a state usually known as a net importer of teachers that only two years ago launched a $2.5-million national recruiting drive of its own.
But that was when Florida was moving ahead with its class-size reduction effort and looked flush with jobs and money to hire.
These days, the state Legislature has chopped $332-million from schools, put class-size reduction on hiatus and even cut a bonus program for National Board-certified teachers.
School districts have said they won't be hiring as much as in past years. Several have proposed teacher layoffs, and many have called for pay cuts and freezes.
Suddenly, Florida looks ripe for the picking. And the billboard in Jacksonville, which went up in March, may be the best symbol to date of the effect Florida's budget woes could have on its 170,000-strong teaching corps.
"We're getting a lot of applications from Florida," Fort Worth schools recruiting director Terry Buckner said. "We keep hearing the same thing."
That is: Florida doesn't have many teaching jobs, the cost of living is high and pay is bad. A starting teacher's salary in the bay area ranges from $34,000 in Hernando to $37,300 in Pinellas.
And now, Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee teachers are looking at the prospect of no raises next year, while their counterparts in Hillsborough and Hernando await district recommendations.
"We will find a way to make this work," Lanse Johansen, chief business officer for Pinellas schools, told the School Board at a budget workshop Thursday. "We will commit to a zero pay raise."
Johansen meant that as a positive. In contrast to an earlier proposal to cut teacher salaries by 2 percent, it was.
Fort Worth salaries start at $44,500 — more than a 17th-year Hernando teacher with a master's degree. The district gives credit for years of service in other places.
Florida's sun and surf, traditional lures for teachers from frostier climes, may no longer make up for salaries that rank in the middle nationally.
Fort Worth officials said they chose Jacksonville because it's a large metro area with a concentration of colleges and schools, which could help attract teachers with a range of experience.
Experts say resentment over salary issues is likely to fuel more turnover among teachers who are already sweating a high-stakes accountability system.
It could also stymie teacher recruitment and force recruiters — who still must find thousands of new teachers for this fall — to set their sights lower.
"You can get someone in front of the classroom," said Richard Ingersoll, an expert on teacher turnover at the University of Pennsylvania. "But you get people that are often much lower quality."
Pasco teacher Peggy Belrose warned of the potential loss recently when she urged the Pasco School Board not to freeze pay.
"Because of this, we may lose some very good teachers, and we will not draw or be able to recruit any other teachers that are of good quality, because they're afraid to come to Pasco County because of this," Belrose said.
Fort Worth is betting on it. In addition to competitive starting pay, the 80,000-student district is offering new teachers a $3,000 signing bonus, and up to $20,000 in merit pay for those who agree to work in struggling schools.
"We don't have an ocean," district spokesman Clint Bond said. "But there's one within a day's drive."
For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614.