TAMPA — A weeks-long salary standoff between the Hillsborough County School District and its teachers hit an emotional peak Tuesday as hundreds of teachers and students turned out to ask the School Board for their promised raises.
"War has been declared against public schools and its educators," said teacher Ahira Torres, one of 88 people signed up to speak during the board's public comment period. She echoed others, urging the financially strapped district to honor its agreement with the teachers' union, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.
Under a pay plan enacted in 2013, salaries remain the same for three years, then increase in the fourth if the teacher earns at least a satisfactory rating every year. But the district's plan to hold back a year's advancement on the salary scale means it won't pay roughly a third of its 14,000 teachers their scheduled $4,000 raises this year.
"I feel that I am mourning the loss of my dearest love beyond my family," said Tammy Crosby, a teacher at Hillsborough High. "I have justified this love to my family despite being told by my 13-year-old son that I need a new job. I will not leave because I will not be driven out."
Well before Tuesday's meeting began, district security told the estimated 600 union members and their supporters that the auditorium was at capacity, leaving them waiting behind a row of metal detectors for seats to open up. Outside district headquarters, the demonstrators solicited honks of solidarity from passing drivers. Chants of "We prepare students" and "We deserve respect" carried into the School Board meeting room, easily overshadowing a slide show on the district's transportation system.
After the first of two rounds of public comments, superintendent Jeff Eakins addressed the crowd, keeping his gaze on a written statement prepared earlier in the day.
When the district entered its current salary agreement with the union four years ago, it was with the knowledge it would change with economic reality, Eakins said. Honoring the agreement relied heavily on grants from the Legislature and a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he said.
The district honored the plan in 2015 and 2016, although its budget officer estimated that doing so cost $17 million each year.
But when Eakins took over the superintendent role in 2015 he discovered the district overspent its reserves by $130 million while increasing staff by more than 900 positions and payroll by more than $35 million. Also, the Gates foundation ended up giving only $80 million to the district.
"Without proper planning, without support from the Legislature and without additional money through grants, the salary plan everyone hoped would be financially viable is not," Eakins told the packed board room.
When he began to tick off the other "tough decisions" the school district has made to balance expenses, teachers walked out one by one to join the cheering and chanting crowd in the lobby. The noise drowned out Eakins' voice every time the door opened.
Teachers addressing the board spoke of tutoring students after hours to offset meager paychecks and even ending a relationship because dating got too expensive. A handful of high school students also addressed the board, echoing last week's student walkouts at Strawberry Crest, Alonso, Armwood, Freedom, Jefferson, Middleton, Robinson, Sickles, Hillsborough and Leto high schools.
"You are showing students that it's okay to go back on your word, to not treat others with respect and to break your promises," said Destiny Cattery, a junior at Strawberry Crest. "I'm asking you to appreciate your employees as much as your children and your grandchildren do."
Students at Strawberry Crest received a day of in-school suspension for participating in the walkouts and on other campuses school resource deputies put an end to the walkouts in a matter of minutes.
Still, teachers have picketed outside Steinbrenner High and encouraged one another to "work the contract" by refraining from doing any work outside regular school hours.
Tuesday's meeting opened with a reminder from chairwoman Cindy Stuart that board members won't address the ongoing salary negotiations with the union. The board stuck to that promise, remaining silent as multiple speakers urged Eakins to fund teachers' salary raises by "cutting the fat" from administrative salaries.
Board member Susan Valdes sat stone-faced as two speakers called for her resignation, and board member April Griffin ignored groans and boos as she told the board why she would be a good vice chairwoman before Tuesday's board reorganization vote.
The board voted unanimously to name Sally Harris as its chairwoman, and first-year board member Tamara Shamburger won the vice chairwoman role over Griffin.
"I think in this district we have passed over a lot of opportunities to make this district stronger, and I think today we have an opportunity to make a change," Shamburger said.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.