With deadlines looming, Florida districts work to boost base teacher pay

Many still must complete contract negotiations to firm up the details.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signs into law a bill to increase Florida's minimum salary for public school teachers to $47,500 on June 24, 2020, while at Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signs into law a bill to increase Florida's minimum salary for public school teachers to $47,500 on June 24, 2020, while at Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens. [ The Florida Channel/WPLG ]
Published Sept. 23, 2020

Florida school districts have until Oct. 1 to send the state Department of Education approved plans for increasing their minimum teacher salaries toward $47,500.

Many of them aren’t ready, having yet to reach agreements with their local teacher unions on how to distribute the money lawmakers set aside for this purpose. Several won’t be able to reach the level that Gov. Ron DeSantis and state lawmakers set as the goal when declaring 2020 the “year of the teacher.”

Related: DeSantis signs teacher pay raises into Florida law with bipartisan support

They’re trying to meet the stringent guidelines the Legislature wrote into law, while also aiming to do better for educators who weren’t included in the plan. Those include non-classroom teachers, such as guidance counselors, and the thousands of veteran instructors who already earn more than the targeted base.

Further complicating matters, the tax revenue supporting the state budget is billions of dollars off, raising concerns that districts might be forced into staffing cuts half way through the year. District officials across the Tampa Bay region said they’re juggling all the competing interests to come up with approaches that can work.

The Pinellas County School Board is the furthest along in its process, having approved the outlines of a pay proposal on Tuesday.

Staff lawyer Laurie Dart asked the board to act on the recommendation, despite not having concluded contract talks with the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, because of the state requirement for an “approved plan.”

“The statute is very prescriptive,” Dart explained.

Part of the reason the administration felt comfortable with its proposal is because it needs only a sliver of its $17 million allocation to reach $47,500 for every teacher as defined in the law. Even after sending a portion of the money to local charter schools, the district has $12.7 million remaining to offer to other educators and still keep with the legislative intent.

The district has increased its minimum salary by about 28 percent over the past eight years, with the help of revenue from a voter-approved property tax, making its effort easier than what other school systems face.

Union negotiators have taken the district’s offer of 3.3 percent raises for all other instructional staff under advisement.

“I hope we can go ahead and get this done,” School Board member Rene Flowers said, before the board’s unanimous vote supporting the plan.

Other area districts, which don’t have added tax revenue, watched Pinellas with envy. While their newer teachers stand to gain potentially large raises, their veterans are likely to see little.

The state’s call for a pay raise plan comes to Hillsborough County at a time of great upheaval.

Superintendent Addison Davis has asked schools to prepare for staff cutbacks based on their enrollment, a painful process that makes it impossible to know exactly how many teachers they will wind up with, in the various pay categories.

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Pay is also a sensitive issue among Hillsborough’s teachers, ever since the district retreated from its 2013 pay plan that offered $4,000 raises every three years. At a bargaining session Monday, union director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins told the superintendent’s chief of staff Michael McAuley, “I have found over the years that people will forget that you gave them money. They will never forget that you took money away.”

McAuley said district leaders are asking the state for an extension of the Oct 1 deadline. He and others on the bargaining team laid out a preliminary plan to divide an estimated $38 million in state money — $28 million after fringe benefits and charter allocations are deducted — among the district’s roughly 15,000 teachers.

Eighty percent, or $22 million, is reserved for classroom teachers who do not yet earn $47,500. That group, about a third of the teacher population, stands to see raises of as much as $6,900, and as high as 17 percent.

But some 10,000 employees either already earn the state’s starting minimum, or do not qualify because they hold jobs outside the classroom. The typical pay raise in this group: $372 a year, an adjustment of less than 1 percent.

“We do want to look at what we can add to this, so that we are not insulting teachers with $372,” McAuley said. “I don’t know that I have the money to do that. But I am convinced that there is a solution in there somewhere, for us to look at what we can do, better than that.”

Union president Rob Kriete, however, said the numbers they were shown were visual evidence of an agenda in Tallahassee to run off seasoned educators.

“This is not the year of the teacher," Kriete said. "This is the year of the first-year teacher.”

Similar concerns influenced pay discussions in the Pasco County school district, where the state’s $13.3 million salary improvement allocation is expected to bolster teacher base pay to about $45,080 — still $2,400 below the goal. The 20 percent held aside for veteran teachers would generate about 1.5 percent raises.

“I don’t think 1.5 percent is enough, particularly when you’re talking about teachers who have been in the classroom for 20 years,” superintendent Kurt Browning said. But with concerns over whether they’ll face budget cuts in the winter, and how much revenue will be used up on coronavirus responses, “There’s not a lot of wiggle room.”

The district is submitting a “status update” on pay to the state, rather than a full-blown plan, assistant superintendent Kevin Shibley said.

“It really doesn’t make sense to seek board approval on anything until we have a final plan,” he said. “We’re at the table. ... We’ll get there.”

United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace held out hope that, as district budget planners figure out how much money was unspent last year, and how many budgeted unfilled positions exist, the scenario might improve.

“The union and the district are trying to work together to see where available funding is, to see if we can do better for salary increases for these people,” Peace said.

Shibley said he and other officials statewide in a similar position expected the state to be flexible in reviewing the pay plans, knowing such talks are under way.

“The state has acknowledged multiple times that we’re in a unique year ... and we’re supposed to be acting with compassion and grace,” he said. “I hope they take that same stance with school districts.”