TAMPA — When offering a new pay plan to teachers, Hillsborough County school leaders didn't know how popular it might become.
They would soon have their answer. Three out of every four educators opted in, adding $65 million a year to the district's operating budget, according to records released Monday.
Now, superintendent Jeff Eakins and his staff are combing through expenses to figure out how to maintain the promised salaries without further depleting the district reserve account, also known as the fund balance.
"Our teachers are worth every penny of that and more," Eakins said. But he added: "When these salaries and expenses hit, we have to be prepared for how they can be sustained."
Earlier this month, Eakins announced that the district's dependence on reserve accounts during the recession left the district in a precarious situation. Some of the money went to recurring expenses, including salaries.
As part of his review, he asked for a salary study to pinpoint how much the new teacher pay plan contributed to the district's $111 million operating deficit last year.
Veterans among the district's 16,000 teachers have had two opportunities to move from the old pay scale, which rewarded longevity and advanced degrees, to a new one that includes bonuses for teachers who score well based on their evaluations and student test data.
The new system was designed under a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In 2013-14, the first year of the program, 8,431 teachers signed up, for a total of $50.9 million in added pay. The next year, another 924 opted in.
New teachers are automatically placed on the new pay scale, which accounted for 2,224 people last year. That second year, another $14.1 million in higher salaries went into the payroll.
Even before seeing the impact, Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins said teacher pay should not bear the brunt of any ensuing financial retrenchment.
"The entire purpose of what we've done is to value teachers and to pay them a better salary," she said over the weekend. "There is no teacher who is making a fortune. I don't think it's out of line. And, in fact, Florida teachers are still paid pretty poorly compared to teachers in other places. "