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Experience doesn't pay under new law

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Given all the talk of a teacher shortage, the 24-year veteran teacher figured she would have no trouble landing a job.

She was in for a shock.

The Tampa woman was told by a principal in Pasco County that she wanted to hire only teachers with 10 years' experience or less. To do otherwise would cost too much in salary. Thank you for applying, the principal told her, but no need to interview.

The teacher realized that her vast experience was working against her.

The job-hunting teacher's dilemma is the unintended result of a new law requiring that school districts give new hires full credit for all their years of experience. The result is that districts now have to pay newly hired experienced teachers more.

"This law just passed and we hadn't budgeted for it, so we told our principals to hire teachers with 10 years or less," said Pasco Superintendent John Long. "We would love to have them, but we can't afford it."

Pasco's is not an iron-clad rule. Long said principals can hire more veteran teachers if they need to, especially in critical shortage areas.

But the strategy is clear: If possible, hire a teacher with less experience because their salaries are cheaper.

Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, one of the sponsors of the new law, said he was shocked at the strategy.

"If they can't find it in their budget to hire good and experienced teachers, that's a sad state of affairs," Arza said. "I think that's poor management."

Pasco isn't the only district struggling with the effects of the new law. It took effect July 1, well after districts budgeted for most of their new hires.

"What's the financial impact? We don't know yet. But I'm concerned," said Howard Hinesley, superintendent for the Pinellas County schools. Despite the potential cost, Hinesley has not discouraged principals from hiring of teachers with many years of experience.

In the past, districts typically allowed newly hired teachers to bring with them only seven or eight years of experience, even if they had been teaching for 30 years. Perhaps it wasn't fair, but that common practice helped districts save millions of dollars. With the new law, newly hired teachers are getting a fairer shake. But districts that want that experience suddenly are having to spend a lot more _ and budgets are tight.

"This puts us at a disadvantage when we hire someone with a lot of experience from another district," said Earl Lennard, superintendent for the Hillsborough County Schools. Lennard said he has not instructed principals to avoid hiring teachers with a great deal of experience.

"This is one of those cases of unintended consequences," Lennard said. "Before this new law, every year we could project how much it would cost for all the teachers we hired. This year, we don't know how much it will cost. We're negotiating and budgeting in the dark.

"I don't think this is what the law was supposed to do."

The new law clearly is a boon to some experienced teachers.

A New Jersey man just got a job teaching in Pinellas County, after 26 years teaching in the Garden State. Under the old rules, he would have gotten credit for only eight years of his previous teaching experience. Now he gets full credit.

What's the difference? Instead of being in the middle of the salary scale, he moved near the top for an experienced teacher with a masters degree. Instead of making $34,050, he will make $49,600 this year. That's great for him. But Pinellas could have saved more than $15,000 if he had been hired a few weeks earlier.

That man's hiring helps address Florida's teacher shortage. He is new to Florida, and the new law and resulting salary boost helped bring him to the Sunshine State.

But many of the teachers who benefit from the new law aren't new to the state. Their hiring does little to solve the state's overall teacher shortage. It does, however, cost school districts more money.

"It's just moving teachers around from one district to another, and it's costing the districts more money," Long said. "How does that help with the teacher shortage?"

Based on last year's hires, Hillsborough County estimated it would have cost about $500,000 more to pay 124 newly hired teachers if they had been given credit for all their experience. (Hillsborough hired more than 1,000 new teachers last year, so only 124 had eight or more years of experience for which they did not get full credit. Most new hires are fresh out of college or have only a few year's experience.)

The new law could be even more expensive down the road. Even before the law passed, educators saw that it could result in some odd inequities. Once again, the remedy is more money.

In the interest of fairness _ and in holding on to the teachers they already have _ districts are looking to boost salaries of teachers who were hired before this new law. Many of those teachers never got full credit for their previous years of experience.

"You can't give it to new folks and ignore the folks who have been here for years," said Yvonne Lyons, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

"What you'll end up with is one teacher with 20 years' experience in one classroom and another teacher with 20 years' experience in the next classroom who we just hired, and the new hire will be making more money," said Superintendent Lennard. "We'd like to give the same consideration to the teachers we already have."

Hillsborough estimates it might cost $3.5-million to fix that inequity. Though the issue will be high on the agenda in salary negotiations, Lyons, Lennard and everyone else agree the district can't afford to do it _ at least not all at once.

In Pasco, Superintendent Long is studying the same proposal, but doesn't know how much it will cost. Long said that it was his concern for keeping the teachers he already has that led him to frown upon the hiring of highly experienced teachers; he wanted to avoid both the cost and the inequities that would result.

Rep. Arza and other lawmakers who supported the bill aren't buying it. They think districts just need to set priorities and spend their money wisely. If they do so, they argue, they will have enough money to hire the best teachers.

"School districts need to prioritize their expenditures, the same way families do," said Arza, a 16-year veteran teacher. "You have to be able to hire the best teachers you can find, if you set your priorities."

Long defended his decision.

"I'm trying to be fair to the teachers I already have," Long said. "If (lawmakers) had given us some warning, we could have budgeted for this. If they had given us some money to offset the costs, that would have helped. But they didn't.

"The bottom line is I'm the one who has to balance the budget."