The Hillsborough County teachers union has asked the school district for a salary package that would increase starting pay for all teachers to nearly $50,000 a year.
The union says the district has the money, although district budget officials say they must spend cautiously and make adjustments to avoid another financial crisis. Last school year, the district was headed for a possible state takeover because of its low reserves. It was rescued in the eleventh hour by federal COVID-19 relief funds, but not before a stern rebuke from education officials in Tallahassee.
Despite that history, and projections that the district could find itself in similar trouble a year from now, the union says the new pay plan is both affordable and necessary to stem an exodus of talent from the classrooms. The district is advertising for more than 400 teachers and about 1,100 employees in all.
“We want to make Hillsborough the place to teach in the West Coast of Florida,” said Rob Kriete, president of the union.
Kriete introduced the proposal Monday at one of the first bargaining sessions of this school year between teachers and the district. Earlier, using published budget documents, the union demonstrated that the district intends to spend $772 million in state dollars this year on instructional pay. That amount represents an increase of more than $70 million from last year’s spending, which came in below budget.
District leaders said those figures do not mean there is an extra $70 million available.
They said money is moved around over the course of the year to cover unexpected expenses — for example, textbook purchases that cost more than what the state allocated. They said the COVID-19 relief money that they are now using to build up the reserve is a short-term funding source and cannot be relied upon for ongoing spending.
Romaneir Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, showed projected budgets for 2023 through 2025 that, without making adjustments, will result in more shortfalls and negative reserve amounts.
“These are just projections and budgets change,” Johnson said. “But if nothing changes, if we keep the people we have, and nothing changes over time, we are going to have an overall operational deficit of $100 million.”
The two sides also considered varying reserve amounts, with Kriete calling it “egregious” that at one point, the district posted a 9.6 percent reserve. Johnson and her team said that percentage dropped after the district lost $28 million because more families took advantage of a state scholarship program that sends children to private schools. An amended budget shows the reserve at 3.8 percent. The state requires at least 2 percent.
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The proposed agreement would establish $49,200 as the salary for all teachers in their first through seventh year on the job. Starting pay is now $46,900, resulting from a new state law that requires districts to move their starting teacher salaries as close to $47,500 as possible.
Kriete said that, with a starting salary well above the state minimum, the district can cushion itself against future mandates that pit the interests of new employees against veteran teachers.
The union also wants the district to award annual supplements ranging from $500 to $5,000 to longtime teachers who have reached the salary ceiling of $68,400, special education teachers who are shouldering the administrative work of colleagues who lack certification, counselors with advanced academic degrees, and others.
Kriete, using a preliminary estimate, said the proposed pay package should cost between $30 million and $35 million, which is about half of the $70 million budget increase he described.
District leaders said they will do their own calculations to determine the price tag.
It is not unusual for the union and district to begin the bargaining process far apart. Nor is it unusual for bargaining to last until the winter holidays or beyond. The next session is planned for Dec. 13.