The work day at Woodland Elementary School in Zephyrhills ends at 4 p.m.
Most days, fifth-grade teacher Ken Carpenter and many of his colleagues stay longer. But not this coming Wednesday.
Woodland Elementary teachers and staff — along with their counterparts at schools across Pasco County — plan to walk away in unison after the final day of classes, to demonstrate their displeasure with a proposal to cancel their annual salary step increases and freeze their pay for next year.
They also plan to wear black to signal Wednesday as one of mourning.
"This is to show what could happen if we all stuck to the contract and left," said Carpenter, a 37-year teacher who doesn't stand to get a step increase but thinks his co-workers should get one. "A lot of us work hard. … We feel like we deserve it."
Step increases are annual raises based on years of service. For teachers, they range in amount from $350 to $850, before taxes. And according to the teachers' contract, they earn the step up after they complete at least half their 196-day work year.
"It is a negotiated item and it is something that was promised," said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco. "That is why we fight over it."
Webb suggested that the School Board and district administration seem to be doing more to justify why they can't afford the increases than to find money to meet the commitment of $5-million or so. The USEP leaders from each school met earlier this week, she said, and "they felt it was very important that they have the opportunity to send one last message before the end of the school year."
Even the staunchest teacher supporters on the School Board indicated that a demonstration would have little effect on them.
"I think we already have the message," said Marge Whaley, who has instructed superintendent Heather Fiorentino and her staff to look for ways to fund the step increases. "I think the message should really be for the legislators who put us in this position" of having to cut spending. "I don't need convincing."
Vice chairman Frank Parker, considered Fiorentino's closest ally on the board, said he, too, would like to pay teachers more. He also pointed to the Legislature, which sets school districts' budget levels, as the reason that higher pay isn't likely.
"We've only got X number of dollars to work with," Parker said. "We're the middleman in this transaction here, and we're getting all the heat. They should have been in Tallahassee three months ago."
Teachers across Florida have lamented the poor state of education funding for the coming year with the symbolic wearing of black.
Shortly after the Legislature closed its session, educators in Hernando, Citrus, Sumter and Marion counties staged a "Day of Mourning" for public education by donning black clothes on the same day. Organizers lamented reduced bonuses for National Board-certified teachers and local proposals to cut or freeze pay, noting that requirements to meet the state's education standards remained unchanged.
Earlier this week, about 60 teachers turned out for the Pinellas School Board meeting dressed in black to protest the Legislature's decision to cut education funding. Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Kim Black said the protest was "to symbolize the grief we feel" over the cuts, which could include a pay freeze.
Webb noted that it's not just teachers who face the pay freeze. It's also bus drivers, custodians and other school-related personnel who earn much less than teachers and who often struggle to make ends meet. The USEP is holding a job fair for them today to help them find summer work.
"Our teachers and our SRPs make sacrifices every day," Webb said. "They are a selfless group and I think sometimes people take that for granted."
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.