Pay talks have begun and Hillsborough County teachers are aiming high.
At a bargaining session this week, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association asked for salary and supplement bumps that could add as much as $100 million to the budget and bring the top salary for typical teachers to as high as $80,000.
“Yes, it’s ambitious, it’s aggressive, all of these things,” the union’s executive director, Brittni Wegmann, said after going over various pay requests for teachers and classroom aides.
About half of the increase would come from retooling salary schedules that essentially freeze pay for starting teachers in their first six or seven years of employment.
At $47,500, the state minimum, Hillsborough trails behind other area districts. Unlike Pasco, Pinellas and districts around the state, Hillsborough does not yet have a voter-approved special property tax to support teacher pay.
Wegmann estimated that teachers, on average, would see their earnings increase by 7.25% if the district and school board approve the package. “The inflation rate in Tampa is 7.3%, the highest in the nation, and we know that this is impacting our employees,” she said. “The average rent here in Tampa is the same as what it is in Miami, maybe $100 difference.”
The proposal from the teachers, which they acknowledged is just a starting point, includes higher supplements for those with advanced academic degrees. Some veteran employees would receive longevity bonuses and others would see additional steps added to their pay scale over time. A teacher who formerly would hit a ceiling of $68,000 could earn as much as $80,000.
“We are committed to settling our contract negotiations with our employee groups as quickly as possible,” said district spokesperson Tanya Arja.
Negotiations went so slowly last year that the two sides wound up in impasse hearings, finally reaching an agreement as the school year was winding to a close. In those sessions, the union tried to show that the district was saving money on salaries, partly because of chronic vacancies. A hearing officer sided with the union, citing sacrifices teachers made in recent years to help the district work its way out of financial trouble.
This year, the union has another potential argument: The district’s main reserve has grown to $330 million, about 20% of revenues. That’s well above amounts in past years, when Hillsborough faced the possibility of insolvency and a state takeover.
But the district can argue that reserves are for emergencies and one-time expenditures, not ongoing expenses, such as salary increases. They also must wait for more accurate enrollment counts, around the 20th day of school, before they can plan for the year.
“We’ve had to go through some really painful times in the last couple of years with our fiscal recovery plan, in order to get from where we were in an operational deficit to where we are not,” said human resources general manager Danielle Shotwell. “And we just need to be cautious that we do not put ourselves in a situation where we cannot sustain everything we’ve agreed to.”
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The district can point to other challenges as it prepares a counteroffer.
One is continued growth of charter schools, which are run by independent organizations but pull public funding away from the district. In a worksheet distributed at the bargaining session, the district estimated it will cost $319 million this year to fund charters.
There is also the likelihood that more families will take private school and home-school vouchers under a new law that eased restrictions on those programs. Using state estimates, the district said its losses to the voucher program could grow from $83.5 million in the last school year to $132.6 million.
Shotwell talked about recruitment from Step Up For Students, the organization that manages the state’s voucher programs. “As a parent, I have one child in the system, and I get a daily email from Step Up For Students to my personal email,” she said.
No action on teacher pay is expected before the end of the month, when district leaders will meet in a closed-door session with the school board. Before they return to the table, they will also calculate, line by line, the cost of the union’s requests.