After six years of stagnation, salaries for Pinellas County schoolteachers may finally be headed in the right direction. An agreement to raise teachers' salaries an average of 5.6 percent would mean the district would have the highest starting salary — $40,000 — in Tampa Bay. But perhaps most importantly, the entire salary schedule would be adjusted so young teachers earn more earlier in their careers, giving the district a better chance of attracting the best talent to the classroom.
Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego, nearly one year into the job, has said raising teacher salaries was a priority. The 2013-14 state budget, with $18 million marked for Pinellas teacher raises, went a long way toward getting it done. Under the tentative agreement that needs formal approval from the School Board and union members, pay for a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree would jump by $3,000, to $40,000. Teachers with one to seven years of experience would receive smaller raises but also would be paid $40,000. Pay would increase to $42,000 by the 12th year, four years earlier than before. And a teacher with 20 years of experience would earn $46,978 — $2,023 more. The top pay at 28 years will be $61,300, compared to $60,079 at 31 years under the current contract.
Thanks in part to a voter-approved local property tax, Pinellas once ranked among the state's top 10 for teacher pay. But Pinellas teachers have lost ground since 2007, as the district's enrollment dropped and as health care and pension costs rose. Last year, Pinellas teachers received a 1.5 percent raise that was erased by the Legislature's requirement that all members of the Florida Retirement System contribute 3 percent of their salaries toward the pension fund.
In an ideal world, proven teachers with seven years of experience wouldn't earn the same as a new teacher fresh in the door. But the new schedule looks ahead. Starting in 2014-15, all school districts are required by the Legislature to shift their pay schedules to a merit system that will require pay raises larger than the next salary step for any "highly effective" teacher. It's not yet clear how that will play out, but at least this agreement would give all Pinellas teachers a long-delayed boost and provide principals a better tool for recruitment.
Despite all the hoopla over the coming Common Core State Standards or other education policies, the best chance any child has of learning in school is to have a good teacher. As Pinellas works to improve its lowest-performing schools, paying a wage to attract and keep good teachers is the most important investment of all.