LAND O'LAKES — As students hugged and shrieked and headed out the door for summer, black-clad teachers and employees started gathering in the Land O'Lakes High School commons Wednesday for a demonstration of their own.
The signal came over the public address system about 15 minutes later, at 2:30 p.m.: "It is the end of our work day. Let's go."
With that, the 60 of them walked to the parking lot to show what school might look like next year if the School Board decides to freeze salaries and cancel step increases. Many teachers and school-related personnel have said they intend to work the terms of their contract, but no more, if their pay doesn't rise to cover at least a portion of their rising cost of living.
"I love being a teacher, but I'm not going to get a second job to be here," said second-year Spanish teacher Tameka Bradley, who is struggling to repay her student loans.
The symbolic walk out played itself out at several, but not all, schools across Pasco County.
Teachers departed Sunray Elementary in New Port Richey walking arm-in-arm, singing in protest. Nearly the entire West Zephyrhills Elementary staff, including non-instructional employees, chanted "We want our steps" as they headed to the parking lot. Chasco, Sanders and Hudson elementary schools also participated, among others.
"We don't want to lose our money," said Mary Sadr, one of about 40 Hudson Elementary teachers to leave at the official quitting time. "We just need cost of living to be able to afford to live."
School Board members and superintendent Heather Fiorentino have said they wish they had money for the step increases, which will cost somewhere between $5-million and $6-million. But declining revenue makes it a difficult prospect, not just here in Pasco County but throughout Florida, where several school districts are talking about freezing pay.
"I don't think that anyone doesn't believe that every employee deserves a raise," Fiorentino said. But the reality is "we all are going to have to tighten our belts and live within the budgets we are given."
The district is looking at reducing its spending by $16-million, in addition to not giving raises.
The issue wasn't that simple to ninth-year West Zephyrhills teacher Glenda McAllister.
While many companies laying off people and cutting pay must do so amid falling revenue and decreasing work, school employees don't face the same scenario, McAllister suggested.
"We're getting more students, more federal mandates pushed down upon us and more accountability," she said. "We're having to do more things with less money."
And that's becoming increasingly unaffordable for many teachers, and especially for non-instructional support personnel who make much less than educators.
"We make $10,000 a year, basically, back in the kitchen with no air," said Land O'Lakes High cafeteria worker Rhonda White, who recently had her job reduced from full time to part time because of budget cutting. "And there's pretty much nothing they can do for us, we're told."
"They have us under the bus," added cafeteria worker Roseann Wood, who is losing her position. "I am furious. I am disgusted the way they can do things to a person."
After walking out of Land O'Lakes High, several of the teachers headed to their cars, like their counterparts at other schools. Others, however, returned to their classrooms.
"We are not done," math teacher Patrick Connolly explained. "We are professionals, and we will do our job. All we ask is that we be treated as professionals and be paid as professionals."
Although school ended for kids on Wednesday, the last day of work for Pasco teachers is Friday.
Times photographers Janel Norton and Keri Wiginton and Bay News 9 reporter Michelle Kay contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.