New lawsuit alleges Florida teachers owed up to $30 million

The plaintiff, a former Orlando elementary school teacher, wants to recoup what he says he and 100,000 other educators are owed by law.
Students raise their hands to answer questions in Mellissa Manzi’s third grade class at Fairmount Park Elementary school in St. Petersburg. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times ]
Students raise their hands to answer questions in Mellissa Manzi’s third grade class at Fairmount Park Elementary school in St. Petersburg. [DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published July 16, 2019|Updated July 16, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — A former teacher filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday that accused the Florida Department of Education of allowing employer taxes to be wrongfully deducted from bonuses, costing high-performing teachers hundreds of dollars per check.

The suit, filed in Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County, says the state gave school districts approval to pay teachers less than the bonus amounts required in the “Best and Brightest” program, which the plaintiff’s lawyers estimate means that more than 100,000 teachers are owed between $25 million and $30 million for the past two school years.

That’s because, according to documents included in the lawsuit, districts were allowed to deduct from bonuses taxes owed by the employer.

“Teachers in the state of Florida are routinely underpaid,” Chris Alianiello, the plaintiff and former Orlando elementary school teacher, said during a Tuesday morning news conference. “I want to get the money that was owed to me and I want to make sure the tens or hundreds of thousands of teachers get their fair share.”

Ron Meyer, a prominent Tallahassee-based lawyer who has represented the teachers’ union against the state in court, said this case seems like a straightforward win. He is not involved in this lawsuit.

“This will go a long way to setting record straight,” he added.

The Department of Education declined to comment.

But Kevin Shibley, the Pasco County assistant superintendent who previously served as employee relations director, said he understands the concerns raised by the plaintiffs but doesn’t see any other way for the bonus system to operate.

“The program was designed to be self-sufficient,” he said. “At the end of the day, the (tax) contributions have to be made. There was no separate pot of funds set aside to pay the costs. ... I just don’t know where else the funds would have come from.”

Tuesday’s lawsuit was announced in Orlando at the office of Morgan & Morgan, the prominent law firm headed by millionaire political player John Morgan, with reporters tuning in by phone.

This is not the first time Florida’s method of rewarding teachers has been at the center of a fight.

This new case comes as an earlier class action suit alleging discrimination in the bonus program is nearing its end. Florida districts are now collecting the names of all their black and Hispanic teachers who were rated “highly effective” on their evaluations but who haven’t received extra compensation.

READ MORE: Florida works to complete Best and Brightest teacher lawsuit settlement

That’s because the program predicated bonuses on high scores from the college entrance exams teachers took when they were students. State lawmakers did away with that condition, which was unpopular with teachers, as part of a reform of the bonus program this year. The state has set aside $15.5 million to dole out to high-performing minority teachers who didn’t meet that test score threshold, even if they hadn’t applied for the bonus.

The teacher bonus program was a source of disagreement between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature this year. DeSantis had asked for a $422 million increase to the program. The Legislature’s total amount for this year was about $285 million.

“We’re in the bottom third (for teacher pay), we’ve got to do better than that as a state,” DeSantis told reporters near the end of the legislative session, vowing that he plans to revisit the issue.

“We’re in the bottom third (for teacher pay), we’ve got to do better than that as a state," he said.

This year’s changes to the program, contained in Senate Bill 7070, also created three tiers of bonuses. Teachers who are experts in certain subjects that are needed in districts qualify. So do those rated“effective” or “highly effective” in a school that a certain amount over the prior three years. Principals could also select a third group of teachers or other staff who must have high evaluation marks.

Teachers have long said say they would prefer across-the-board salary raises, rather than bonuses that hinge on not just their individual performance, but that of the schools where they teach.

Rene Flowers, chairwoman of the Pinellas County School Board, said she expects teachers around the state to join the new lawsuit.

“The state should have done its due diligence,” she said. “You have people excited only to find out there’s a tax issue.”

Tampa Bay Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Megan Reeves contributed to this report.