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School Board would be foolish to deny its best teachers raises

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By GREG HAMILTON, Citrus Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003

To hear Greg Biance speak is to understand why he is such an extraordinary teacher. Articulate, passionate, weaving both pain and humor through his message, Biance captures his audience and almost dares them to tune him out.

Biance, who inspires young minds at Inverness Middle School, held both teachers and the county's education leadership spellbound Tuesday when he pleaded with the School Board to correct a wrong that has been done to him and more than 100 other longtime teachers within the district.

Snared in the district's infamous five-year cap on experience, these teachers have been grossly underpaid for many years. Biance, a 20-year veteran, is being compensated for a fraction of his tenure. That translates into tens of thousands of dollars in lost pay for each of these educators.

In a profession hardly noted for swollen paychecks, the cap has crushed the teachers' finances and, increasingly, their spirit. The six-year fight that Biance has had with the district over this injustice has reduced him to the degrading position of appearing in public to beg the School Board for better pay.

"I am beat up," he said. "I want my dignity back."

Biance and the other "cappers" who spoke Tuesday received a standing ovation, but little else. The cap is one of several subjects of contract talks that now are in mediation and the board's attorney advised them against discussing the matters in public.

There's no doubt the board members heard the pleas, however. They would have to have been deaf or dead not to.

But the board also heard other details. For one, the five-year cap was agreed to by the teachers' union years ago, so the blame for this crisis is not the district's alone. Plus, the teachers impacted knew of the cap when they began working for the district, although the accuracy of what they were told then is in question.

After hearing from the cappers, including teacher Margy Hatcher who left the district for one year and lost credit for 19 years of service and tens of thousands of dollars in pay, and another teaching couple who between them have lost out on $160,000 in compensation, the board heard more sobering financial news.

Funds from Tallahassee and Washington are becoming endangered species as the full impacts of unconscionable federal and state tax giveaways to the filthy rich come home to roost.

The cash-strapped feds are dumping their responsibilities onto the states, which are deflecting them onto the budgets of counties and cities. The School Board briefly talked about severe budget cuts and spending freezes before deciding to discuss their options more in-depth later this month.

Clearly, these are treacherous financial times and the cappers' plight is just one of many difficult decisions the district will face in the coming months. There is a simple solution to this one, though.

Pay 'em.

Yes, money will be tight (when isn't it, though?). Yes, there are a great many needs in the district. Yes, it is a substantial expense.

Pay 'em anyway.

Sure, it's easy to say that. After all, it's not my money. (Well, since I'm a taxpayer, it IS my money.) There are loads of excuses the district can use to avoid spending the money necessary to fix this problem. And they all pale in comparison to the reasons why the board should do the right thing and pay these folks what they have earned.

Like most things connected to school district finances, the amount it would cost to compensate the cappers is a moving target but the best estimate is around $1-million. Sounds like a lot, but the district's overall budget this year is $164-million. Much of that is not discretionary, but an awful lot of it is.

Maybe the district lives with a few older copying machines for another year or delays buying new cars or office furniture or making other purchases. Maybe employees don't travel as far and as frequently as they have in other years. Maybe they spend less on gas and remember to turn out the lights when they leave the buildings for the day.

No one with intimate knowledge of the district's budget will tell you with a straight face that it is an entirely bare-bones document. The money can be found if the board insists that making the cappers whole is a priority. The district has millions stashed aside in rainy day funds. For the cappers, the clouds have burst.

The issue is more than just doing right by employees, it's an investment in the very people who have made the district what it is. Biance, for example, is a former teacher of the year. Last year's teacher of the year is a capper. So is the husband of this year's teacher of the year. What could be more important to a school district than building and retaining the best roster of teachers possible? Pretty schools are nice; inspirational instructors are invaluable.

At some point soon, when the ongoing mediation is complete and the state dollar situation is clearer, the School Board members will have to make choices and set spending priorities. It will not be easy, but they asked for this responsibility when they sought office. How they choose to allocate the taxpayers' money will clearly demonstrate whether their priorities are in line with those of their constituents.

The board should listen closely as the various departments make their cases for funding, then judge whether any of those requests are more important than fair compensation for the teachers, the backbone of the district, who demonstrate their worth every school day.

The answer will become painfully clear.

Pay 'em.

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