Trying to compensate teachers fairly is an admirable goal for the Hernando County School District, but spending the nest egg to do so is troublesome in a down economy.
Tuesday, the Hernando School Board unanimously approved a new contract to raise teacher salaries an average of nearly 2.4 percent, plus a 1.5 percent increase to cover rising health care costs. That pushes the salary for a starting teacher to $35,000, a nearly 17 percent increase since 2006, part of a continued attempt to be competitive with teacher salaries offered in surrounding counties.
Certainly, nobody would suggest educators are overpaid. The typical work week for a classroom teacher, besides actual instruction, includes extra hours before and after school for staff meetings, parent conferences and paperwork, with additional at-home time spent grading papers and preparing lessons. That the district administration and School Board recognized their teachers and supporting staff's efforts with a financial reward is commendable. But, a more prudent recognition would have been a one-time bonus while keeping salaries at current levels.
The board chose to dip into its reserve account to help finance the raise package. It leaves just 1.2 percent of the general fund left uncommitted, half of what the state recommends. The action is problematic because the board has now spent one-time money on recurring expenses at a time extraordinary budget cuts could be on the horizon because of dwindling state revenue.
Consider Pinellas County, for instance. The same evening Hernando approved its teacher raises, the School Board in Pinellas voted to close five elementary schools and two fundamental middle schools. It comes just two years after $22-million worth of budget cuts that were preceded by the board's decision to use reserve accounts for four consecutive years to balance its budget. There, the Pinellas board believed incorrectly future state aid would make up the difference. Enrollment, however, dropped, meaning fewer state dollars for the district.
Hernando should be wary of falling into a similar trap. Its enrollment is flat for the first time after a long upward trend. Meanwhile, the recession continues to cause state revenue estimators to miss their projections. The district is preparing for a 4 percent budget cut after the first of the year, but the 2009 state fiscal year that begins July 1 is expected to be just as bleak.
Additional reductions would mean program cuts or layoffs. That's why a one-time bonus is preferable because it gives district budget-writers more flexibility for maintaining staffing levels in the coming school year.
Unfortunately, what happens in Brooksville is less relevant than what occurs in Tallahassee. If the Legislature is unable to spare the education budget from cuts, expect School Board members to face continued financial duress.