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District to Hillsborough teachers: Suggested pay raises would break the bank

Photo illustration. [iStockphoto.com]
Photo illustration. [iStockphoto.com]
Published Jul. 26, 2017

TAMPA — Paying Hillsborough County public school teachers what they want this year could put the school district more than $100 million in the red, officials said Wednesday.

That amount includes a deficit of more than $50 million caused by lower state funding levels and rising costs. The teacher raises and associated expenses would add another roughly $65 million.

"Obviously, that's a lot of money," the district's employee relations manager, Mark West, told union leaders at a negotiating session.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Report on district's financial woes blames everyone but the district

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Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, the union's executive director, questioned some of the calculations and warned that morale will suffer if the school year starts on Aug. 10 with pay issues unresolved. "This will be the third year in a row we just are leaving teachers in limbo as far as their finances," she said.

Nevertheless, West said the district needs more information about its financial picture and student enrollment before it moves ahead with anything that means spending more money.

Much remains unclear about House Bill 7069, the sweeping state education bill that some districts are challenging in court. Hillsborough has not yet said if it will join those efforts. The district expects its high-poverty schools to lose some of their federal funding because of the law, but chief business officer Gretchen Saunders said those calculations are not yet complete.

Nor can anybody say for sure how many Hillsborough students will opt for privately managed charter schools, and how much state tax money will follow them there.

Despite so much uncertainty, the School Board is scheduled on Tuesday to hold the first of two hearings on the 2017-18 budget of close to $3 billion. Budget hearings, which involve setting property tax rates, happen on a schedule proscribed by state law, and therefore are speculative at best.

Teachers in recent months have been speaking out at board meetings and on social media sites, expressing their fear that the district will try to retreat from a pay plan that raises salaries for most by $4,000 every three years. Hillsborough has more than 14,000 teachers.

Teacher salaries in the district start at $38,201 and max out at $66,201, not including performance bonuses and supplements for things like department chair or yearbook adviser.

West said several times on Wednesday that he has nothing against the pay plan and does not blame it for the district's ongoing financial difficulties.

But some School Board members have lamented publicly that the plan — enacted under former superintendent MaryEllen Elia — was never sustainable.

"Band jumpers," as the district calls those teachers advancing to the next three-year pay level, would cost the district nearly $18 million including fringe benefits, according to West's calculations. The union also has asked for an across-the-board $800 cost-of-living adjustment, which would add up to another $13 million.

Other components included in the $65 million include pay differentials for teachers with advanced academic degrees and $4.5 million in raises for classroom aides.

Also unresolved is a conflict over last year's performance bonuses, which by state law are paid to all teachers considered "highly effective."

Hillsborough has two categories of these teachers and they saw their bonus amounts drop from $1,900 and $2,900 to $1,400 and $2,100.

This happened for a number of reasons, some of which have been resolved since the controversy surfaced in June.

One that is still pending: The district used some of the money in a $12.4 million fund for the bonuses to pay fringe benefits. The union expected fringe benefits to be paid separately.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com.

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