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    Push under way to hike teacher starting pay

    Some school money would be reallocated in a House plan.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 19, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- The state House wants to boost starting pay for Florida teachers and spend $315-million this year on bonuses to keep them from leaving for better-paying administrative jobs.

    But despite the popularity of rewarding teachers, barriers surfaced Tuesday. The House would pay for higher salaries in part by raiding $120-million from a popular program started by Gov. Jeb Bush to reward schools for academic improvement. Meanwhile, the Senate has rejected a teacher pay plan, saying it's impossible in a time of deep budget cuts.

    High turnover in the classroom is an old problem in Florida, and meager pay and student disciplinary problems are cited as factors. Florida's average teacher salary is below the national average and below neighboring Alabama and Georgia.

    "We are committed to increasing teacher compensation so that we can attract the teachers that we all want," said House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City.

    Raising starting teacher pay is a priority for Byrd, whose wife, Melane, is a former teacher. Byrd calls the program BEST, for Better Educated Students and Teachers.

    Under the House plan, the minimum starting pay for a Florida teacher would rise to $31,000 for the 2004-05 year. That would cost $70-million.

    The costliest part of the plan creates a career path for teachers, giving them bonuses for excellence. House members say that would encourage them to remain in the classroom instead of leaving for jobs as principals or administrators.

    The House plan seeks to attract more graduate students into the teaching profession, mainly in reading, math and science, by offering them $5,000 annual stipends and bonuses of $5,000 to $10,000.

    Education Commissioner Jim Horne supports a career ladder for teachers that rewards the most accomplished among them. It would be a major departure from the current system of pay based on education and years of service.

    Bush cautioned that collective bargaining laws give local teacher unions the power to set pay in negotiations with school boards.

    "The legality of this would be questioned," Bush said.

    In his re-election campaign last fall, Bush said the problem with keeping teachers was not so much average pay as starting pay. In some rural counties, starting teachers make $22,000 a year.

    Elements of the plan came from an all-day seminar with teachers and administrators three weeks ago in Tampa.

    Teachers and principals crowded Byrd's news conference and some did not like what they heard. Tom Rao, principal of Tampa's Hillsborough High, asked whether the performance-based House plan would add more tension to the teacher evaluation process.

    "Our concern is that it is one more thing that we get to alienate faculty members, by making a decision that they might view as arbitrary," Rao said.

    The proposal is separate from a legislative effort to grapple with the public demand for smaller class sizes. Bush wants another vote on the class size cap, saying its price tag blocks other education improvements, such as raising salaries.

    But the House said it would pay for part of the salary plan with money Bush had budgeted for reducing class sizes. The House estimates reducing class sizes next year will cost $313-million, instead of the $628-million Bush has budgeted.

    The bill also gives teachers more authority to permanently remove disruptive students from class. It also provides for volunteers to handle much of the paperwork not related to teaching.

    The details of the plan are in a bill (HB 901), sponsored by Rep. Bev Kilmer, R-Quincy, who chairs the House K-20 Education Committee. The last paragraph encourages superintendents to "request the resignations" of principals and teachers at a school receiving a grade of D or F two years running.

    -- Times staff writers Stephen Hegarty and Michael Sandler contributed to this report.

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