‘They will not break us.’ Pinellas teachers turn down a raise to press for better working conditions.

District leaders have called a 2.55 percent raise their "final offer." Still, the teachers union is holding out — but not for more money.
"No matter how much work they take home with them, no matter how long they work over the weekend, they can't seem to keep up," Pinellas teachers' union president Mike Gandolfo says of his members. "The district doesn't sympathize with that for some reason." [YouTube]
"No matter how much work they take home with them, no matter how long they work over the weekend, they can't seem to keep up," Pinellas teachers' union president Mike Gandolfo says of his members. "The district doesn't sympathize with that for some reason." [YouTube]
Published November 30
Updated November 30

LARGO — Weeks after other Pinellas County school employees settled their union contracts, the district’s 7,000 teachers are still holding out.

District leaders have proposed a 2.55 percent pay raise, the same bump they gave the other unions. But the teachers want more, though money is not the sticking point.

The Pinellas teachers union says working conditions have steadily declined in recent years. And while teachers wish for higher wages, their union says they are more concerned about issues like intense oversight of lesson planning, piling on of tasks not related to instruction, and limited recourse for teachers who perform well but are not reappointed to their jobs.

"Anyone who thinks (the teachers union) will sell out the contractual rights of our members for a raise is dead wrong," Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said in a recent YouTube video. "They will not break us."

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For teachers in other school districts, however, money is paramount. In Hernando County, for example, where teachers have been offered a 2.75 percent raise, the union is still asking for 4.25 percent. Hillsborough County teachers battled their district for more than a year over a pay plan that is still not completely resolved. And those in Pasco County continue to negotiate up from the district's 1.75 percent offer, made last month.

In other states, like Arizona and Kentucky, teachers have poured into streets protesting pay. Schools in all 55 counties in West Virginia closed as teachers went on strike for the first time since 1990 in February, the Los Angeles Times reported, before the governor agreed to a 5 percent raise.

"Salaries are always the priority," said Hernando teachers union president Vince LaBorante.

So what is it about teaching in Pinellas that has teachers so willing to give up raises that their peers in other places are fighting so hard to get?

For longtime Osceola Middle School teacher Kim Mardis, the list is long. The union's stance is based on principle, she said.

"Working conditions mean more than money," said Mardis, who has taught in Pinellas for 20 years and still makes less than $50,000 a year — not much more than Pinellas’ starting teacher pay of $43,000. Still, poor working conditions weigh heavier on educators than low pay, she said.

The parking lot at Osceola Middle often remains filled with teachers' cars after the sun has gone down, Mardis said. Groups of teachers she knows meet at Starbucks on Sundays to complete work they can't find time for during the school day. Moments with family are missed as they grade papers and plan lessons in their off hours.

"They keep piling more and more on the plate, but the time we are paid to do it doesn't change," she said. "I find myself choosing between being a parent and being a teacher."

Gandolfo says Pinellas forces teachers to attend too many meetings and too closely polices how they plan lessons and report student data. Mardis added that duties unrelated to teaching, such as hallway duty or computer repair, take up too much time.

"They're demanding so much of their time that they cannot be successful," Gandolfo said. "No matter how much work they take home with them, no matter how long they work over the weekend, they can't seem to keep up. The district doesn't sympathize with that for some reason."

As a member of the district's Employee Well-being and Satisfaction Committee, which reviews health insurance policies for district employees, Gandolfo said he has seen upticks in the use of stress-related pharmaceuticals and enrollment in available counseling programs. He argues "absurd and dangerously high" levels of stress on teachers is partly to blame.

"(The district) can't deny that the stress level is high, but they don't want to do anything about it," Gandolfo added.

At a bargaining meeting Thursday night, negotiators for the district made another plea to the teachers union to take their offered 2.55 percent salary increase, which totals $8.2 million.

“We’d like to go more but we can’t,” Laurie Dart, staff attorney for Pinellas Schools, told the union’s team. “That’s the final offer. We’d like you to accept it. We don’t want to hold up any teachers for these other provisions.”

Again, the union said no. Its most recent contract with the district expired in June and still, more than 20 of the agreement’s 50 articles haven’t yet been agreed upon. Unions for administrators and support staff settled weeks ago.

The district’s biggest employee group by far is teachers.

“There are no strings attached to that offer, and we would like to see our teachers get that,” Dart said in an interview, referring to the raise. “We would continue to discuss any changes (to other articles) … but we need to have a finalized contract, then continue to bargain those issues.”

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Gandolfo refuses. He is more interested in finding relief for teachers, and in fighting the ongoing K-12 teacher shortage that stretches across the country. He says the district is working against the public education system by not listening to teachers’ growing concerns.

"Settling on salaries with the promise that we will talk about the rest of the contract later, that's not something we are willing to do," Galdolfo said in an interview. "Money isn't an issue right now. It's always important, but for us to take the short money and keep teachers working in environments that continue to put them under stress ... No."

The raise wouldn't change paychecks much anyway, Mardis said. Maybe $10 more a day, and that will never repay what she's sacrificed to teach in Pinellas for two decades.

"How much is your sanity worth?" she asked, standing near the bargaining table Thursday. "Can you put a price on that?"

Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] or . Follow @mareevs.

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