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Teacher career ladder missing a rung: How to pay for raises

Hernando County teachers seeking career advancement could find themselves with new opportunities _ and big raises _ when the next academic year begins.

To meet the requirements of the state's Better Educated Students and Teachers program, district officials have crafted a career ladder that would create new job categories such as lead teacher and mentor teacher. Educators who get those posts _ about 200 in all _ would earn $5,000 to $8,000 in supplemental pay above their contracted salary.

Few question the philosophy behind better compensation for teachers. But as the School Board prepares to discuss the proposal next week, leaders are raising questions about whether the theory can be put into practice.

"It's going to cost the state over $2-million just to cover the cost of this program. . . . And that's just for ours," said Missy Keller, Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president. "To fully implement it across the state will cost $2-billion. . . . I have no idea how they are going to force us to implement this."

Keller, who helped write the district plan, worried that if the School Board must pay for BEST from the general fund, regular teacher raises will fall by the wayside. She also challenged the notion that the program actually will provide a career path for teachers.

Educators would have to apply annually to get the mentor and lead teacher positions, Keller said, so the posts are not really promotions.

"This is just another fine program from the state. But there's no value in it whatsoever," she said. "It's not going to benefit the children and it's certainly not going to benefit the teachers."

School Board member Gail David said she could see some common areas of concern among members of the teachers' union and the board. Neither group wants to see the majority of teachers financially hurt to pay for a program that would affect a smaller number, she said.

"The actual intent probably was a good one, keeping good teachers as teachers. You don't want to see your best teachers go on to administration just to better themselves economically," David said. "It's a wonderful idea in theory. But in practice, how do we pay for it?"

She said she attended a workshop on the subject with school board members from other districts, and heard the same concerns.

"I have no idea where the money would come from," David said.

School Board vice chairman Jim Malcolm, who requested a workshop on the BEST program, said he had not reviewed all the details yet. He said Keller is probably the district's expert on the subject, and he has sought her counsel on it.

"If it's as bad as I am told it is, I am hoping there will be people who have more influence than we do with the Legislature who will work to make changes, to make it workable," Malcolm said.

The message is making its way to lawmakers.

State Rep. David Russell, a Brooksville Republican who represents most of Hernando County, said he had heard complaints about BEST and he expected to see some adjustments to the program during the upcoming session.

"Whenever we pass a law like that, sometimes there are unintended consequences that need to be addressed," said Russell, who voted for the program last year. "I certainly wouldn't foresee the state handing down an unfunded mandate of that magnitude."

In the meantime, Keller and other members of the committee that drafted Hernando's BEST career ladder are recommending that the School Board move ahead with it, but only if the money becomes available, "over and above all other funding for school operations."

"If they fund it properly, we should be okay," Keller said. She laughed then added, "Yeah. That'll happen."

The School Board has scheduled a workshop discussion on the BEST career ladder for 3 p.m. Tuesday.

_ Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (352) 754-6115 or