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Without step raises, teachers may depart

State employees are going without pay raises for the second consecutive year. Likewise, Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher is proposing no salary increases for county workers who traditionally receive a 5 percent annual boost.

Pasco teachers should plan on joining them. This is the regrettable price for public service at a time of shrinking government revenue. And, it could push some educators into other lines of work as nearly half of the teachers responding to a United School Employees of Pasco survey said they are considering changing professions or finding employment elsewhere.

The lament from teachers seeking a pay raise tied to longevity is understandable. Florida teachers already are poorly compensated, so much so, that the Pasco School District is partnering with the private sector to try to boost affordable housing options for educators.

But it is unrealistic to expect a nearly $6-million windfall to emerge in the 2008-09 budget being compiled by the Pasco School Board. That is the amount needed to fund the so-called step pay increases based on years of service. While still awaiting final numbers from the state and from property tax rolls, the district is anticipating a $16-million budget cut. Eighty-five percent of the $562-million general revenue budget is tied to personnel with utilities, fuel, textbooks and school supplies accounting for the remainder.

Already, the district is planning to forgo hiring 200 additional teachers to meet class-size amendment requirements. It is an $11-million savings that will need to be made up in 2009 unless the Legislature again allows districts flexibility in how they calculate student-teacher ratios.

More modest cuts proposed by superintendent Heather Fiorentino include a hiring freeze of district positions, cutting individual school spending by 10 percent, reducing overtime, cutting back travel and recruiting, paring the interscholastic sports season and requiring administrators to substitute teach.

School Board member Marge Whaley, who is retiring in November, said she was embarrassed by the district's inability to provide adequate raises to teachers in all but two of her 16 years on the board. Whaley, whose two adult daughters are educators, provided a list of suggested cuts as an attempt to cull together enough money to finance the raise package.

Certainly, they are worth exploring. Among the suggestions are cutting three weeks from elementary school principal annual contracts, eliminating vacant non-essential jobs and suspending the frequently panned Learning Focus Strategies, multimillion-dollar investment of a teaching philosophy intended to guide educators on classroom techniques to improve student achievement.

Fiorentino had recommended a 25 percent cut in the program and assistant superintendent Sandra Ramos cautioned against pulling the plug after investing in training more than 4,000 teachers. But, Whaley's idea has merit even if the savings are relatively minor and won't exclusively provide money for raises. Whaley wants a one-year hiatus to evaluate the strategy's effectiveness.

It is a reasonable suggestion even without a budget crunch. If the district can't afford to pay its employees better and still expects some to teach classes more crowded than the state Constitutional amendment intended, it should be doing its best to reduce teachers' workload from outside distractions.

Without step raises, teachers may depart 05/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2008 2:45pm]
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