DeSantis is using teacher bonus checks for a political plug, critics say

Not so, says education commissioner Richard Corcoran, who called the checks “a direct thank you” from the state to educators.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaking at Palm Harbor University High in March, announces his proposal to give $1,000 bonuses to school principals and teachers as a reward for their work during the pandemic.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaking at Palm Harbor University High in March, announces his proposal to give $1,000 bonuses to school principals and teachers as a reward for their work during the pandemic. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ]
Published June 21, 2021|Updated June 21, 2021

Florida’s public school classroom teachers and principals are set to receive $1,000 bonuses this year, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has systematically tied his name to the financial recognition.

So much so that his administration has taken steps to have the money delivered directly from the state, rather than following the usual process of sending bonus funding to school districts for distribution. The departments of Education and Economic Opportunity are collecting employee data and looking into the logistics of cutting and mailing the checks.

DeSantis critics have speculated that the governor will attempt to have his signature on the payments — either on an accompanying letter or the check itself. They suggested politics is at play.

“It’s very reminiscent of the Trump stimulus checks,” said state Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, referring to the 2020 federal payments to households that were delayed as Donald Trump insisted on having his name on them.

“He’s Trumping it,” Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Nancy Velardi said of DeSantis, who’s a strong backer of the former president. “He wants this as a political move to gain votes.”

Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran called such criticism a conspiracy theory without basis.

“We’re trying to do that as a direct thank you ... so they know we appreciate the great work they did,” Corcoran said, mentioning the state also is sending bonuses to first responders and others in the “COVID heroic group” that kept Florida running through the pandemic.

Although the governor campaigned to give the workers the bonus, he added, DeSantis deferred to lawmakers in determining how to use the federal stimulus funds. And the Legislature adopted the expenditure as part of a spending package that had broad bipartisan support, Corcoran said.

He downplayed the idea that the DeSantis administration is taking credit for money made possible by a federal package that no Republicans backed, noting Congress passed stimulus deals under both Republican and Democrat leadership.

As for the signatures on the actual checks, Corcoran said, “I don’t think it matters.”

To leaders of the teacher bargaining units, though, the place from which the check comes does have consequences beyond the appearances.

One of the primary concerns centers on tax forms and withholdings. District payroll departments have every employee’s income levels and other information on file, and are set up handle all the paperwork, said Jim Ciadella, chief operating officer of the United School Employees of Pasco.

They don’t have to validate eligibility lists or create new systems, he said, where the state would have to recreate information because teachers and principals are not their direct employees.

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On a web page called “Where’s my bonus?,” the Florida Education Association said check recipients might be responsible for added tax payments, as only an employer can withhold taxes.

“School districts have the ability to get these bonuses to teachers quickly,” the organization stated on its site. “Delaying the receipt of the bonuses in order for Gov. DeSantis to put his name on the check is an act of political desperation.”

State Sen. Shevrin Jones, the Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he hadn’t heard of the state’s plan to distribute the checks. He called the move unusual, and said if it was all about politics, “It’s a bad idea.”

“Just give the teachers their money,” Jones said.