TALLAHASSEE — With Florida expecting its first budget surplus in six years, Gov. Rick Scott wants to spend a chunk of it on higher pay for teachers — a proposal some see as more of Scott's newfound support for public schools.
Scott will unveil his proposal today, including his recommended amount of the raises, when he visits Ocoee Middle School near Orlando in the hub of the I-4 corridor that's pivotal in statewide elections.
"It's good for teachers, it's good for students, and it's good for the state," Scott said Tuesday.
But skeptics see a governor hobbled by low popularity numbers in campaign mode, trying to prove he's an ally of public education.
"Tell him to send the money, but no one is fooled by this," said Karen Aronowitz, president of the 22,000-member United Teachers of Dade in Miami. "He's just restoring money that was already stolen from teachers. He can campaign all he wants."
The average teacher salary in Florida is among the lowest in the country, at about $46,000 a year, and lags the national average by about $10,000.
While the money may be welcome, teachers may not be as quick to embrace Scott. Many teachers remain angry at Scott for cutting $1.3 billion to schools from his first budget; for signing a teacher evaluation law that he now says must be reworked; for backing a merit pay system tied to students' standardized test scores; and for requiring teachers to contribute 3 percent of their pay to their pensions, an action upheld last week by the Florida Supreme Court.
Scott in recent months has gone on a listening tour at schools, proposed more professional teacher training and declared emphatically in interviews that "I like teachers."
"Obviously, it would be a little hard to believe what he says," said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco County, noting that Scott championed $1 billion in additional funding for schools in the current year's budget after he cut $1.3 billion the year before.
"It's hard not to be skeptical," said Jean Clements, president of Hillsborough's teacher union. "But it's heartening to at least hear a governor say that he wants to give raises to teachers."
The statewide union for teachers, the Florida Education Association, has long been closely aligned with the Democratic Party. Union leaders strongly backed Scott's Democratic opponent, Alex Sink, in 2010, and the union's lawsuit against the 3 percent pension plan contribution led to last week's court ruling. (Scott had proposed that public employees contribute 5 percent).
Citing that 3 percent cut, FEA president Andy Ford said: "A 3 percent raise would just put us back to zero."
Still, Ford said, Scott would be the first governor since Democrat Bob Graham in the early 1980s to advocate higher salaries for Florida teachers, but the proposal isn't as simple as it sounds.
Ford said teacher salaries are negotiated county by county, and while a budget directive from Scott and the Legislature will carry weight, county school boards will decide how to spend the money. It could also raise fairness questions if support personnel aren't given raises, too.
"It could be complicated," Ford said, noting that school districts have asked for up to $100 million to beef up security on campuses after the mass killings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. "He can provide the money and he can strongly urge them. But he can't just rule that it will be done."
Scott also wants to give $250 debit cards to all teachers to help defray their out-of-pocket costs for classroom items, which would cost an estimated $14 million.
The governor will release all of his detailed budget recommendations next week, a step that sets in motion more than two months of back-and-forth negotiating with the state House and Senate. The Legislature writes the state budget, but the governor can veto individual line items.
It will be the first time in years the Legislature actually has new money to spend. Chief state economist Amy Baker has told legislators that the state could have a surplus of up to $437 million next year as the state's economy shakes off the effects of the recession.
Scott and lawmakers will face a multitude of competing demands from groups seeking a slice of that money, from state universities to health programs.
Scott, who spent more than $70 million of his own money and won the 2010 governor's race with 49 percent of the vote, remains an unpopular leader, according to recent public opinion polls. A Quinnipiac University survey last month showed that a majority of Scott's fellow Republicans (53 percent) said they hope he faces a GOP challenge in 2014.
Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat who's considering challenging Scott, endeared himself to many teachers in 2010 when he vetoed a merit pay plan that was unpopular with many teaching professionals.
Rep. Betty Reed, a Tampa Democrat who serves on the House education committee, said voters will plainly see Scott's true reason for pushing a teacher pay raise.
"It's election time. That's what's happening," Reed said.
Times staff writers Lisa Gartner, Marlene Sokol and Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report.