There is no satisfaction for anyone in the standoff over pay raises between the Hillsborough County School District and its teachers. Most teachers across the nation already are underpaid, but this district simply cannot afford the raises teachers expect this year. Both sides should agree to revisit the issue next year if the district’s financial picture brightens.
The district and the teachers’ union have been at loggerheads for months as the district insists it cannot afford to honor a pay plan that calls for roughly a third of the district’s 14,000 teachers to receive a scheduled $4,000 raise. Under the plan, enacted in 2013, salaries remain the same for three years, then increase in the fourth if a teacher earns at least a satisfactory rating every year. The district says that with nearly $2 billion in maintenance and new school construction needs and a cash crunch still not under control, it cannot find the $15 million to $17 million to fund the pay increases this year.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The district has been struggling with a financial crisis for two years — shaving expenses, not filling vacancies, cutting bus services for students and taking other steps to balance its budget and shore up cash reserves. It has phased out some 1,000 jobs since 2015 to bring its payroll more in line with like-sized districts, and officials say it will take another year to eliminate several hundred more positions through attrition to make the budget sustainable.
The union has an obligation to its members, but teachers should recognize the scope of the problem and the time frame for addressing it. The district needs time to reduce its bloated payroll even further, which it is pursuing through voluntary departures, not layoffs. It needs to improve its balance sheet to satisfy credit agencies so it can reasonably borrow money to build new schools and meet the demands of growth. The district also has a serious maintenance backlog; broken air conditioners in a subtropical climate provide no suitable environment for learning. If anything, teachers should protect their self-interests in assisting the district in getting its finances in order.
Both sides are losing in the public relations battle. Some teachers declared the district was waging war on them — and by extension, their students. That’s ridiculous. The district agreed to a pay plan it cannot afford at the moment. The district’s chief negotiator offered the union a $1.8 million payout, an insulting sum that undercut the district’s argument about the depth of its financial crisis. Both sides have a responsibility to put the district on firmer footing so this energy and public attention can return to the classroom.
The union expected that the pay plan devised in 2013 was based on a "sustainable model," and it anticipated that if any "financial issues arise" it would address them through collective bargaining. So there was hardly an ironclad promise four years ago that was blind to financial realities. The teachers aren’t the first and only stakeholders in the system being asked to sacrifice, and the district’s finances have to be put in better order before there’s money for significant pay raises. If that seems harsh, they need only look to the private sector to see a clearer picture of the real world.