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Thousands of Florida teachers rally at Capitol for more public school funding

Today’s 2 p.m. rally includes thousands of teachers from across the state fired up on the issue of teacher pay.

TALLAHASSEE — They came from all across Florida.

Thousands of public school teachers, joined by other school staff, students and education advocates, flooded Tallahassee on Monday, creating a sea of “Red for Ed” t-shirts and marched from the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center to the historic Old Capitol — hoisting signs all the while.

Just three months ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis had declared that the 2020 legislative session, which officially begins Tuesday, would be the “Year of the Teacher." He’s unveiled a proposal to set a statewide minimum teacher salary at $47,500 and creating a new bonus program.

After years of stagnant pay following a steep cut left Florida teachers with some of the lowest average salaries in the nation, DeSantis’ renewed emphasis on the issue signaled a possible — and significant — bipartisan win. And when he rolled out his pitch to raise the minimum teacher salary in October, the state’s largest teacher’s union, the Florida Education Association, applauded his intent.

But Monday’s rally, organized by the union, showed how vast the divide remains between it and the GOP-controlled state government.

That divide grew after Polk County teachers received an email Friday evening from the Florida Department of Education that seemed to threaten their jobs if they attended the rally, saying a stoppage of work constituted an illegal strike.

A fierce backlash whipped through the state and beyond. Even Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren took time out from campaigning in Iowa to tweet about the controversy Sunday afternoon.

The Department of Education tried to quell the outrage over the weekend. It explained the email from its general counsel was sent in response to the district’s concerns after a rush of teachers requested Monday off, and was intended to merely outline the district’s legal options. The state’s email was then forwarded by the district to the teachers.

RELATED: Could Florida teachers rallying at the Capitol be punished for a strike?

Taryn Fenske, spokeswoman for the department, said Sunday that districts employ teachers and that the state has no authority to fire them.

But Monday morning, the national attention only intensified. Another Democratic presidential candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, published an op-ed in the Sun Sentinel in Broward, saying he was proud to stand with Florida teachers against the “outrageous threats."

These events have placed Florida at the epicenter of a national and political discussion of teacher pay — precisely the place DeSantis had tried to avoid, especially on the eve of his sophomore legislative session.

Ryan Haczynski, a Tampa teacher at Strawberry Crest High School, drove up because he said teachers need to stand up.

“DeSantis quickly declared 2020 the year of the teacher and I guarantee it will be the year of the teacher but not in the way he expects,” he said. “This Polk thing was the best late Christmas gift you can give teachers. By threatening to take our jobs, we’re like a bee’s nest that’s just been kicked over.”

Tracey Scott, a prekindergarten teacher from Polk County, said the email from the department shocked her, but she never reconsidered attending the rally. She’s hoping that whatever teacher pay plan is passed also includes prekindergarten teachers — who are paid much less than their colleagues in K-12.

“(Lawmakers) have no choice but to listen because there’s lots of us showing up,” she said, while taking her seat at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, which served as the staging area for the rally. But felt more like a pep rally before a major sports game.

Energized and motivated, teachers said 2020 feels like a turning point in education funding that in some ways has never recovered from the cuts after the Great Recession. After major teacher strikes in other states, some said well past time for Florida’s “Red for Ed” moment.

Teachers gather at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center before Monday's rally at the Capitol. [ [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times] ]

The teachers marched along Madison Street and up Monroe Street, both of which were closed off for the demonstration.

DeSantis gets “an A for effort” but “we have a bunch of teachers out here who can help you with a lesson plan,” said union president Fedrick Ingram, from the steps of the Old Capitol, to cheers from the several thousands in the crowd.

Rev. Al Sharpton, left, addresses thousands of Florida public school teachers, Monday, January 13, 2020 during a "Take On Tallahassee," rally organized by the Florida Education Association in a call for improved support from Florida lawmakers of public education. On the right is Fed Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Rev. Al Sharpton, longtime civil rights leader and MSNBC host, helped fire up the crowd.

“If this is the Sunshine State, then take the teachers out of the shade,” he said emphatically.

But earlier in the day at a news conference, DeSantis seemed unfazed by the impending rally.

“I don’t even know the details of what’s going on," DeSantis told reporters.

He added that people who care about teacher pay should indeed be speaking with their local state lawmakers to encourage them to support his plans for the minimum teacher salary and bonuses. In the weeks leading up to session, it’s become increasingly clear that DeSantis’ teacher pay proposals are facing an uphill battle, as even fellow Republicans have expressed concerns about some of the mechanics.

State Sen. Joe Gruters, who is the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said in a statement that he endorsed DeSantis’ teacher pay plan but “it is unfortunate on the eve of the 2020 Legislative session, Florida’s teacher union would stage a rally that encourages well-intentioned teachers to abandon their classrooms."

As the teachers chanted outside, Senate Democrats released their own plan to give raises to all public school employees. A bill to establish a basic budgetary framework for a teacher pay bill passed through its first committee.

“The conversation of what the details will look like — I think we’re a long way from there,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, the bill’s sponsor.

Yet even at this early stage, Kim Lowell, a teacher from Plantation Key School, an elementary down in the Keys, said it was important for everyone to gather together from all corners of Florida.

“We came so that we can be part of letting our voices be heard,” she said. “This is amazing.”