Pasco teachers, support staff ask for more competitive pay

Jeffrey S. Solochek   |   Times United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace confers with Florida Education Association organizer Emily McCann before making a presentation to the Pasco School Board.
Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace confers with Florida Education Association organizer Emily McCann before making a presentation to the Pasco School Board.
Published July 25, 2018

LAND O' LAKES — Decked out in solidarity red, a small but vocal group of teachers and support staff brought their familiar plea Tuesday to the Pasco County School Board.

"Please make us a priority," bus driver Sue Jenkins said. "I love my job. But with all the down time we have and the low salary, guess who has a second job."

District officials have made clear for months that raises aren't likely, barring dramatic change in incoming revenue.

"Yes, we still do not have enough for salary increases," chief finance officer Olga Swinson told the board, as she previewed her 2018-19 budget proposal, which comes up for a first public hearing on July 31.

The only hope, Swinson said, is that student growth is higher than expected and charter schools don't snap up all that enrollment. Otherwise, she explained, the state Legislature set up a funding model that prioritized school security and mental health services, leaving little for discretionary expenses such as salaries.

Superintendent Kurt Browning emphasized the point.

The county's appraised property value had increased, he said, but lawmakers — specifically in the House — refused to allow districts to "let growth pay for itself." If the district were allowed to keep its tax rate unchanged, Browning said, it would have generated about $8.2 million more.

"Teachers, that is about a 2 percent pay raise," Browning said.

The district's proposed general fund tax rate is $4.031 per $1,000 of assessed value, down from $4.317 a year ago. In 2007-08, the rate was $5.522 per $1,000.

That message elicited gasps and groans within the audience. But it didn't mollify the employees, who wanted the district to do more than point at Tallahassee.

Hudson High aviation teacher Steve Franks called upon the district to ask voters for a "penny for Pasco for teachers," a local tax rate increase that other districts such as Pinellas have in place. So far, that idea hasn't gone far.

"You can find money for anything but pay. ... It's getting to the point now where I can't take it," Franks said. "I'm tired of hearing, 'We don't have money for teachers.'"

Or anyone else.

River Ridge High registrar Beth Vogel berated the board for allowing people in her job, who work with reams of student paperwork, to be paid $9.25 an hour.

"Publix pays more than that," Vogel said. "I am assuming we mean something to this district. Can you at least show us a little sympathy?"

Many speakers told of their financial straits, and their consideration of leaving for jobs that pay better not far away. Several of their colleagues already have done so, they said.

"If you want us to be a world-class district, then you need to have a world-class salary to keep your world-class teachers," Anclote High teacher Cheryl Vinson said, adding that seven Anclote teachers left recently because of pay.

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United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace encouraged the board to set up a task force to explore funding options that could bring in more money. He also brought Florida Education Association organizer Emily McCann to the meeting, to review the group's analysis of the district budget.

For years, USEP has contended the district has more money available for pay that it has conservatively stated. McCann showed slides detailing how the district's fund balance has annually been higher than projected, with millions less spent than budgeted in areas such as instruction and supplies.

"There is more flexibility in the Pasco budget than one might initially suspect," McCann said, asking the board to think "differently" about its money.

Swinson told the board she wanted to wait until October to discuss raises. At that time, she said, she'll have a better take on student numbers, which determine funding levels.

Board members, meanwhile, told employees that they are exploring options.

"We all know the quality of people we want to keep is paramount, and it has to be commensurate with the pay," board member Colleen Beaudoin said.

Added vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley, "We are very determined to do what we can to get salary increases for everybody. We know this is essential."

Last year, the board awarded pay raises of 0.75 percent to all but school-related employees, who received 2.25 percent. Over five years, employees' cumulative raises, including increases to retirement and insurance benefits, were 19 percent for all except school-related, who got 20.5 percent.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.