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    In judging Florida, teachers do the salary math

    Pay is not the only thing prospective teachers look for, but Florida's salaries dip as low as $22,000. Georgia's floor is about $29,000.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 23, 2003

    VALDOSTA, Ga -- Teacher recruiter Kristen Kroll sat at a table with a sign that read "Hendry County, Fl." A basket oranges was at her side.

    "It's a beautiful area, and we do have oranges," said Kroll, a speech pathologist for the Hendry County schools in South Florida. Despite her ready smile and eager manner, Kroll had a quiet day.

    At a table a few feet away, recruiter Rick White from Atlanta had two figures posted prominently on a sign over his head: Bachelors, $36,564; Masters, $40,584 -- the starting salaries for the Fulton County schools.

    "I have those numbers up there for a reason," White said with a sly smile.

    In the world of teacher recruitment -- including the job fair held at Valdosta State University on Tuesday -- school districts do what they can to grab the attention of the teachers and would-be teachers.

    Here, in a teacher marketplace where Florida competes head to head with other states, ambitious teacher pay proposals now being debated by Florida lawmakers don't count for much. Talk of career ladders and retention strategies from education officials make little impression.

    For teachers such as Lesley Ketchum, who will graduate from the University of Florida next week, both north Florida and south Georgia are possibilities. How does she decide?

    "We'll have to see," said Ketchum, who will graduate with a master's in elementary education. "Probably Georgia. The pay is better."

    * * *

    Florida is always in hiring mode when it comes to schoolteachers. But in light of the class size amendment, the need is greater than ever for next school year.

    Many of the estimated 20,000 new teachers that must be hired will help the state keep up with growth and smaller class sizes. But many are needed to replace teachers who leave.

    Jim Reed, a special education teacher at Azalea Elementary in St. Petersburg, made a four-hour drive to attend the teacher recruitment fair in Valdosta. He wants to consider some other options for next year.

    "Mountains," Reed said, when asked what Georgia has that Florida lacks. "And they've got seasons."

    Reed had considered a move to Oregon, but decided against it when he learned of all the school budget cuts there. Though his teaching specialty ensures that he is in demand, Reed is also concerned about budget uncertainties in Florida.

    Reed spent the morning making contacts and collecting information from school districts north of Atlanta. He and his wife have some options to consider.

    Florida lawmakers know the state is losing teachers from classrooms and teaching colleges. Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd wants to establish a uniform starting salary of $31,000 for 2004-05. If it passes, that would put Florida a little ahead of Georgia for starting salaries.

    Georgia's statewide starting salary is $29,259. But that's simply a floor, and most districts add to that. In Ware County, northeast of Valdosta, the district boosted the starting pay to $30,609. In some rural Florida counties, starting salaries are as low as $22,000. In the Tampa Bay area starting salaries are in the $30,000 range.

    Comparisons of teacher salaries from state to state can get dicey. Georgia has a state income tax. It costs more to live in Atlanta than it does in Jasper, Fla.

    Duval County recruiter Charlotte Douglas promoted Jacksonville's medical benefits and breaks on housing costs for teachers. Other Florida districts promoted beaches, theme parks . . . and oranges.

    Salary isn't the only factor teachers consider.

    "Pay is not what's important to me," said Amanda Warren, a Georgia woman who is about to graduate with her education degree. "All I need is a classroom, students and a paycheck. I can work anywhere."

    Jim Cochran, who traveled from Wisconsin to attend the Valdosta recruitment fair, said he wants to live where it is warm. A late-season snowstorm has him looking at Georgia and Florida.

    Still, there were signs everywhere at the Valdosta job fair that pay is one of the recurring bottom lines for the 250 or so teachers looking for jobs.

    As they signed in Tuesday, teachers were greeting by an oversized placard that read:

    "Georgia is No. 1 in average teacher salaries in the Southeast. Use your head, follow your heart."

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