Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday called on state lawmakers to give every full time public school teacher a $2,500 raise, a request that was met with encouragement, caution and a more than a little skepticism by lawmakers and teacher advocates, including those in Flagler County.
Visiting Ocoee Middle School in central Florida, the governor said he would push lawmakers to approve the across-the-board pay increase for full-time teachers, who have gone several years without raises and been asked to pay more for retirement as the state and local school districts have scrambled for cash.
“Ultimately, I want all Florida families to have more opportunities to pursue their dreams,” Scott said in remarks prepared for delivery at the school. “That means more job opportunities. It is impossible to connect more Floridians with great jobs without a strong education system that supports student achievement.”
The raise, which would have to be approved by the Legislature and subject to local collective bargaining agreements, would cost taxpayers about $480 million – money not everyone is certain can be found.
If the raise were enacted as Scott is proposing it, it would barely make up the 5 percent in combined take-home pay teachers have lost in the past year alone, between the 3 percent of their salary they must now contribute to the Florida Retirement System, and the return of the 2 percent Social Security tax suspended for two years. For example, in Flagler County, a teacher making roughly $46,000 would see a bottom-line deduction of $2,300 this year, from the two charges. The $2,500 pay raise would therefore net the teacher $200. But even that sum is deceptive: teachers, like all public and private sector employees, have seen their health insurance premiums increase more steeply than any tax in the last several years, further eroding their take-home pay.
Katie Hansen, named Teacher of the Year at Indian Trails Middle School and the president of the Flagler County Educators Association, the teachers union, was guarded. “While a $2,500 pay increase would certainly be welcomed by teachers across the state, it is important to keep this in context,” Hansen said. “Teachers, along with educational support professionals, law enforcement, fire fighters, and other public workers have had 3 percent taken from their salaries since July 2011. Additionally, many Districts, including Flagler, have not seen salary increases in over 5 years. In Flagler, we have been fortunate to receive our step increase for the past three years, but for many, with the increasing costs of insurance, this doesn’t even equate to a cost of living increase.
“Most importantly,” Hansen continued, “while the governor can propose this increase, the real question becomes: where will the money come from? Will this be yet another unfunded idea passed down from the state? It would be unfair for the state to pass the buck to the districts and leave them scrambling to implement this pay increase without additional funding. I certainly would not want to see the education support professionals, including custodians, bus drivers, and secretaries, the ones paying the price to make this pay increase a reality. I can’t begin to guess what the legislature’s reaction will be to this proposal, but I know that I, along with teachers across this state, will be watching and listening.”
Other local reactions were on the same wavelength. It wasn’t the governor’s.
“A raise of $2,500 will merely bring the average teacher back to the salary he or she was earning two years ago,” Jo Ann Nahirny, Matanzas High School’s Teacher of the Year this year, said after Scott’s announcement. “I’m not sure how much of a ‘forward step’ that is, given that I’m currently taking home $200 less per month this year than I was two years ago. Multiply that by 12, and even with his increase, my take-home pay will barely approach what I was taking home in 2011, I’ll barely be breaking even yet. The money was taken by the left hand one year and it now may be given back with the right hand next year, and n a gubenatorial election year, no less.”
Monica Campana, who heads the media center at Indian Trails Middle School and has weathered several administrations in Tallahassee, put it this way: “It is a lovely gesture and will put us back at 0 but two years too late for Flagler’s economy. I also question the timing and ease with which it can be done. Contracts are negotiated county by county; Scott cannot dictate how that money will be used as it is up to each district and the union to do so. Teachers are pretty smart; they would be grateful for a raise but understand that Scott is on the campaign trail and is trying to buy back the votes that he most certainly lost in the last few years of cutting school budgets. He has demanded accountability from us but we have had no such accountability from the state on where that 3 percent surplus was spent and what Florida gained from it. The amount this will cost is less than what was already spent by this administration appealing the lawsuit. If legislators had listened to us two years ago and given us a 3 percent raise when they started deducting our retirement contribution, all that money would have been spent in Florida’s local economies. How many jobs would have been saved? We also have many employees living on very low wages who are not teachers. They lost that contribution too. They deserve a raise as well.”
The state’s largest teachers union, meanwhile, was “encouraged” by the news.
“This begins to repair the damage that has been done to our students and those who work in our schools,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association. The union has clashed frequently with Republicans in Florida over the last decade or so, over teacher pay, as well as many other issues.
Key lawmakers said they support the governor’s efforts, but stressed that any discussion of teacher pay and benefits has to be part of a large budget discussion – and some aren’t sure the money is available.
Though revenues are expected to increase in the coming fiscal year, lawmakers say that years of budget deficits and austerity have affected all branches of government.
Senate President Don Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County schools superintendent, said he prefers an approach of providing more funding to local school boards, which would then make decisions about pay increases. That approach echoes that of Flagler County School Board Chairman Andy Dance.
“Once he starts itemizing, wee lose our flexibility. Everything has earmarks and strings attached to it. It becomes impossible to maneuver financially,” Dance said.
But Dance, too, was encouraged by Scott’s more favorable recent approach regarding education. “I think he’s growing into his position as well and understand that an emphasis on education is becoming one of his priorities,” Dance said. “He’s made some decisions lately that have shown that, so this appears to be another indication that he understands the importance of teachers. In looking at it, in many districts, teachers have not received steps or pay raises in the past with the recisssion. We’ve at least been able to keep track of the teachers’ steps. So I think what he’s looking at is some districts where they haven’t been able to do anything.”
A “step” increase is a pay raise automatically due teachers with each year of added experience. With rare exceptions, the Flagler County school district has awarded step increases, in accordance with contractual obligations with its teachers unions, in the last several years. But step increases are different from outright raises. The starting salary for a teacher in Flagler County, for example, has remained stuck at $38,000 since about 2008.
Nothing is certain about the governor’s proposal, which must square with available dollars.
When told of the Scott proposal’s expected cost, Gaetz acknowledged that it could be challenging to find the money. But he said it could involve making tradeoffs in deciding how to spend state funds.
“$480 million is a lot of money,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville.”It’s more money than some people think we’ll have.”
Scott is expected to release his full budget recommendation next week. Lawmakers, who convene in March, are not required to do anything with his spending blueprint. Historically, however, legislative leaders have at least given the governor’s plan some consideration.
The governor, who plans to run for re-election in 2014, began putting education issues on the front burner last year with calls on lawmakers to restore $1 billion to education coffers that had been trimmed by more than that following the collapse of the Florida housing market and subsequent recession.
State economists are predicting an uptick in revenues for the coming fiscal year as the state’s real estate market rebounds, businesses get back on their feet and consumers feel more confident. But lawmakers say counting on that additional revenue right now is a little premature.
“We need to make sure those funds are there,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the chairman of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee that would decide whether or not to include the raises in the Senate budget.
“They’re basing that additional money on projected revenue gains,” Galvano said. “And that very well may be the case, and we certainly support increased funding for education, but again we have to … run all the traps before we can work it into the education budget.”
“We look forward to working with the governor and seeing his entire budget recommendations and seeing how that works, how he is putting that together,” said Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, and chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Scott’s push for across the board pay raises follows an earlier policy focused more on merit pay tied to test scores.
“I believe in merit pay, I believe in measurement I believe in accountability,” Scott told reporters earlier Wednesday. “We’re going to continue to work on that, but right now the right thing to do is across the board pay raises for all of our full time teachers.”
House Speaker Will Weatherford has also expressed interest in a merit pay proposal.
Some Democrats said the governor is pandering to teachers as he seeks to stay in the governor’s mansion.
“You have to step back and look at it that way,” said Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. “It is a political move, especially since he doesn’t appear to want to any (raises) for police, firefighter and other public employees.
“It’s almost an affront to their intelligence,” Pafford said. “Waving dollars after a clear anti-public education agenda and expecting to them to jump on the Scott bandwagon. Public educators know where he stands.”‘
Bur regardless of any political motive, some say the proposal is the first step in getting teachers some compensation after they were required to put 3 percent of their salaries into their pension plans and absorb a 2 percent increase in the federal social security tax.
“I’m sure there are those who would consider this to be a political move,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and a former teacher, principal and school superintendent. “I can’t judge the governor on that but what I can say is that it is good for public education to recognize teachers in this manner.”
Even Nahirny, the Matanzas High School teacher, was willing to look at the brighter side, but not without some perspective. “Regardless,” she said, “any pay increase would be most welcome, given that Florida’s teachers are woefully underpaid anyway. As an example, I have a sister in New Jersey who teaches in a public school. She has 23 fourth-graders in her class. I teach 175 students in my seven classes. We both have about the same number of years of experience teaching in public schools. We both have advanced degrees. Yet she earns $25,000 more than I do. Not only that, New Jersey’s new teachers are guaranteed a starting salary of $50,000, a salary level most Florida teachers could not attain until they have been teaching for several decades. We’re both trying to put two kids through college, and guess who’s having the easier time? Hint, it’s not me. She doesn’t have to pay for her medical insurance, yet we have teachers right here in our county who have to contribute $900 or more per month to get medical insurance for their families–on a salary that’s not-even two-thirds of our northern counterparts.”
–FlaglerLive and News Service of Florida