For decades, teachers in Pinellas County public schools made reasonable but not eye-catching salaries and enjoyed good benefits. Now teachers' salaries aren't keeping pace with inflation and the benefits are shrinking. That raises serious questions about how to attract good teachers at a time when public education desperately needs them. As the Pinellas County School Board negotiates a new contract amid more budget-cutting, finding a way to pay teachers more should be a priority. Voters also should do their part by renewing the half-mil property tax for schools in November.
As the Tampa Bay Times' Rebecca Catalanello detailed last week, the average salary for a Pinellas County school teacher has decreased in the past five years despite county taxpayers' willingness to chip in more. Once one of the best-paying districts in the state, Pinellas is now 17th. Part of the reason for the slowly eroding salaries is dwindling investment by the Florida Legislature, which has refused to consider new revenue streams — such as taxing Internet sales. Lower property values have eroded the impact of the local option half-mil tax that Pinellas voters approved in 2004 to enhance schools, including teachers' salaries. The 2002 voter-approved class-size amendment, pushed by the state teachers union, also has limited school districts' flexibility to deal with diminished resources.
Pinellas has a unique issue compared to nearly all other major counties competing for state money. Its enrollment is shrinking, along with its share of the state revenue pie. All of these factors mean that even amid significant cuts elsewhere in the school district's budget, the average Pinellas teacher's paycheck in 2011-12 was $37,226, or $88 less than a year ago and $74 less than in 2007-08.
Even those numbers don't portray the real fiscal impact for individual teachers. All across the state, government workers who are members of the Florida Retirement System were required to contribute 3 percent of their salary to their pensions for the first time this fiscal year. The 2011 law is being challenged before the Florida Supreme Court, but the state continued to collect the money. And now Pinellas school officials have signaled they expect teachers to contribute dramatically more for health insurance next year as the district, like many employers, struggles to maintain coverage.
The trick for Pinellas administrators and the School Board will be to balance those pressures against the reality that retaining and attracting strong teachers is what matters most when it comes to investing wisely in public education. Union officials also need to be flexible if they expect voters to renew the optional property tax in November. Few middle class voters will consider it unreasonable to reduce teachers benefits to better match those found in the private sector — such as contributing to a retirement plan or paying a bigger share of health benefits. But they also will understand that shifting such costs onto workers should come with a plan to pay salaries more commensurate with the private sector.
For all the furor over the status of public education, including standardized testing, the biggest variable schools can control is hiring good teachers for the classroom. Pinellas needs to invest in teachers, not just for today's children but for tomorrow's community.