Four years ago, the 833 Flagler County school teachers had an average salary of $46,871.
The district’s 876 teachers finished the year last June with an average salary of $48,067, a 2.5 percent increase in four years.
That’s in nominal dollars. In inflation-adjusted dollars, Flagler’s teachers saw their pay decrease significantly. Their $46,871 pay in 2006 was the equivalent of $52,526 in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2011. In other words, if their pay had merely kept up with inflation–not experience, not merit, just cost of living–they would have had to be making $52,526. So when accounting for inflation, average teacher pay declined $4,449, or 8.5 percent.
Keep in mind that average pay can be skewed by a few very high salaries. Median pay–what most teachers are likely to be making–adds a level of accuracy and perspective. Median pay in Flagler County at the end of the last school year was $45,000. In 2006, it was $43,496. When adjusted for inflation, the same declines in pay are apparent.
Flagler teachers began the current year with an average 2 percent raise. But that, too, is deceptive: if the raise wasn’t erased by costlier health care premiums, it was more than erased by the 3 percent of pay all public employees must now contribute to their retirement fund, even though when they signed their contract, no such requirement was stipulated. The Legislature changed the law last spring.
In effect, the average teacher in Flagler County began this new school year with a 10 percent decline in salary purchasing power, compared to 2006. Put another way: the average teacher’s standard of living, based on that school district salary, has had to be scaled back 10 percent (or made up through borrowing that 10 percent, or getting another job).
The figures belie the assumption that teachers–or teacher unions–are exercising much political power beneficial to their bottom line, or that they have been better off than other public employees in the state, where cops, firefighters, health department employees, social case workers and other state employees have seen salaries stagnate or fall, when they have been able to hold on to their jobs at all.Rather, the lower pay appears to be encouraging teachers to leave for better conditions elsewhere.
That’s true across Florida.
On average, school districts have raised the minimum pay for a teacher by 1 percent in the last four years, according to newly released data by the Florida Department of Education. And less than half of all school districts have given raises at all, with most districts keeping salaries flat over the last four years.
As a consequence of years of state cuts to education and dwindling property tax values, most school districts say they cannot afford to give raises to teachers, instead focusing on preventing layoffs or school closures.
Lawmakers say the lack of raises is the product of a severe economic downturn.
“Obviously, none of us are pleased with any decline in salary or any failure of teachers to get raises,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, who helped write the education budget. “We are not satisfied with that, but at the same time, we have to realize this has been a very brutal economic time for most, if not all, Floridians.”
In the last four years, the average pay of a Florida teacher has decreased $1,199, from $46,922 in the 2007-2008 school year to $45,723 in the 2010-2011 school year, a decline of about 2.5 percent.
That doesn’t mean that a teacher who was making $47,000 three years ago was making $45,700 last year: individual salaries have not declined, at least not nominally, but taken as a whole, pay is falling.
In Broward County, an exodus of experienced teachers and salary schedule changes have actually caused the average teacher pay to fall by 16 percent in the last four years to $42,181 – the largest drop in any county.
Stephanie Rothman has done the math. On her roughly $48,000 a year salary, the 15-year high school English teacher in Broward County barely gets by.
In the last year, Rothman has had to abandon a Boca Raton home she could no longer afford, moving into a room at a friend’s house and feels “cynical and hopeless” about her financial prospects.
“I love teaching, I was born to teach,” Rothman said. “But I feel there is no way I can sustain a living with just teaching. So that is why I decided to become a certified personal trainer and get a part-time job.”
Rothman is one of hundreds of thousands of teachers in Florida that have gone years without a significant raise.
“Morale is at an all-time low,” said Pat Santeramo, the president of the Broward Teacher’s Union. “We’ve seen people exiting the ranks of teachers in Broward County whether it’s at the top or bottom. They have basically given up.”
Salary woes have led many in the profession to get second jobs, leave teaching, retire, or move to a state in which teachers are paid more. In Georgia, for instance, the average teacher salary for the 2009-2010 school year was $53,155, over $7,000 more than what the average teacher earns in Florida.
“We are professionals, but we are held to high standards that our pay does not match,” said Lisa Dos Santos, a world history teacher at Forest Glen Middle School in Broward County. “Many of us have lost a house or gone bankrupt, and I speak from personal experience.”
As a single parent, Dos Santos said surviving on a teacher’s salary in South Florida is almost impossible. “You certainly can’t support a family or even yourself on just one teacher’s salary,” she said.
As a result, Dos Santos has kept a second job as a waitress throughout most of her 15-year teaching career.
Flagler County can look at this silver lining: average teacher pay here is 7th-best in the state, behind Monroe, Sarasota, Collier, Dade, Okaloosa and Charlotte. But even at $48,067 a year, that average pay is significantly lower than in neighboring Georgia.
And in every category, Flagler’s teachers have fewer years of experience than the state average, suggesting that once they attain a certain level here, they seek out better-paying employment elsewhere. In Florida as a whole, a teacher has, on average, 12.29 years of experience. In Flagler County, the average is 11.69. (In Monroe, where pay is higher, the average is 13.53, and it’s 14.05 in Sarasota, denoting a correlation between pay and a teacher’s tendency to stay put.) Flagler’s specialists also have significantly less experience (12.94 years) compared to the state average (16.21 years). Its teachers with a doctorate have 14.4 years of experience, compared to the state average of 15.4. Its master’s degree and bachelor’s degree teachers’ years of experience (14.57 and 10.02) are only slightly below the state averages.
Andy Ford, the head of the statewide teacher’s union, the Florida Education Association, placed the blame for the decline in teacher salaries at the feet of the Florida Legislature.
“It’s just a general lack of commitment on the state’s part for funding,” Ford said. “We have not been investing in public education for the last few years and now we are in a downward spiral.”
Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, disputes the notion that lawmakers are to blame.
“Teacher salaries and raises are set by the local governing body,” Coley said. “We don’t set salaries. Certainly, the budget shortfalls we have experienced at the state level has directly impacted local budgets.”
Coley said her “heart goes out” to teachers in areas like South Florida, where the cost of living is much higher. “I know it is a tough time,” she said. “Unfortunately, it is a reflection of the economy as a whole.”
Teacher salaries are set by each district, usually after negotiations with the local teacher’s union. In Florida, Taylor County offers the lowest starting teacher salary at $30,000, and Monroe County – the high-cost Florida Keys – offers the highest possible salary of $80,184 to experienced teachers with a doctorate degree.
The comparative figures at the end of last year in Flagler County were $38,213 for a starting teacher with a bachelor’s degree. A teacher with 20 years’ experience and a BA topped off at $57,677. A teacher with a doctorate started at $43,713 and topped off at $63,177.
Compounding the frustration over no raises, teachers are also wary of upcoming changes to how they are paid. There is that newly required 3 percent contribution to Florida Retirement System for their pensions or investment accounts. Also going into effect this year is the beginning stages of a new merit pay system.
The familiar salary schedules that disclose how much a teacher earns depending on experience and whether they have a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree is about to be phased out.
New teachers instead will have their salaries tied to how well students do on standardized tests, and districts are not allowed to use advanced degrees, except when in relevant subject areas, to boost pay.
“It’s really created a lot of heartburn,” Santeramo said, with teachers questioning how outside factors such as student attendance, background, and familiarity with English will be taken into consideration.
Lawmakers say their goal for next year is to keep funding for education stable, rather than having to cut as deeply as this year, when lawmakers approved a budget that slashed school funding by 8 percent on a per-student basis.
“I’m optimistic,” Coley said. “We made such deep cuts this past session that we will be able to avoid those cuts in the coming session. We don’t have the numbers, but hopefully it looks a little better.”
–The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.