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  1. The Education Gradebook

Teachers, employees implore Pasco School Board to boost pay

LAND O'LAKES — Teachers and other employees let the Pasco County School Board know Tuesday night that they're unhappy with the district's latest pay proposal.

The district has offered raises averaging 2.65 percent, while also covering increases in benefit costs. It's the fourth consecutive year the district has built salary increases into its spending plans.

"We are very pleased that our raises are put first in the budget. That is something you promised us, and we appreciate you doing that," Cox Elementary School teacher Nancy Richie told the board.

But it's not enough to make ends meet, Richie continued, asking the board to increase its offer by dipping into district reserves. "We're worth it."

And, many said, they need it.

"I have made no progress in 10 years, even with the minor increases in the past few years," said Land O'Lakes High teacher Pat Connolly. "My ability to buy is less than it was. … Many people in the trenches are facing that."

Speakers talked of struggling to afford food for their families, and of taking second or third jobs. Meanwhile, their work demands have increased.

"I am flabbergasted and truly in a financial hard place," Sunlake High teacher Eulala Abbey said. "I am begging for a bigger raise. I really need this to stay in this profession."

United School Employees of Pasco president Kenny Blankenship noted that the district has the lowest average teaching salary in the region. Many educators get paid thousands of dollars more simply by crossing a county line.

According to the Florida Department of Education, the average Pasco teacher pay in 2015-16 was $43,117, with an average of 12.4 years experience. The average Hillsborough teacher had 9.2 years experience and earned $50,402.

The comparisons were similar for bus drivers and other school-related personnel.

Superintendent Kurt Browning said during his budget presentation that the state legislature sets school district tax rates, meaning its revenue can go only so high. The County Commission, by comparison, is not restricted similarly.

With so many fixed expenses, Browning added, the district has a limited amount to add into pay. At one point, the superintendent had considered 3 percent raises, but that figure shrank after his finance department worked through all of the district's anticipated costs.

The school board historically has refused to let its reserves drop below 5 percent of general operating funds. It has not signaled any willingness to change so far.

Blankenship and the USEP are hoping continued pressure will make a difference. They said they expect to continue telling their stories throughout contract talks.

"Parents want experienced teachers in the classroom. But if we don't provide comparable salaries … how do we expect to keep them?" Blankenship said. "Invest in your employees."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614.

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