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Schools await fate on pay plan

Educators are anxious to learn from the Legislature who will pay for the "career ladder" program tested in Hillsborough this year.

Published April 5, 2004

School officials across Florida are nervously watching Tallahassee to see whether lawmakers will force them to enhance teacher pay without providing the millions of dollars needed to cover the cost.

The Legislature approved a new "career ladder" pay plan a year ago, at the behest of House Speaker Johnnie Byrd. It requires school districts to create four levels of teaching positions this fall and set salaries accordingly.

The estimated price tag: $480-million.

But the budget plans submitted by the governor and the Senate include no money for the program, which would cost school districts in the Tampa Bay area between $2.5-million and $30-million annually. House leaders say districts can cover their costs with money left over from funding for class-size reduction.

A quick resolution of the differences are unlikely. That has educators worried and frustrated.

"Even though we submitted our (proposal) . . . with a caveat that if it is not funded, we are not doing it, we might have to do it," said Barbara Kidder, the human resources director for Hernando County schools, where the career ladder plan would cost about $2.5-million annually. "That was our greatest fear."

The Hillsborough school district has been a test site for the program this year. Connie Milito, a lobbyist for Hillsborough schools, said administrators are caught in a dilemma.

They are loath to give up the new pay system after investing hundreds of hours in creating it. But they can't lobby too hard for it, Milito said, if the state is going to make them take money from other areas to pay for it.

She is pushing for a one-year renewal of the state-funded pilot program, which also includes Pasco County. Another possibility: The Senate could vote to delay the program until money becomes available, said Sarah Bascom, a spokeswoman for Senate President Jim King.

Local educators are hedging their bets.

The Hernando school district is reconvening its career ladder committee to find alternatives if the program is put into place without funding.

Like other local school districts, Hernando's plan establishes four teaching positions - associate, professional, lead and mentor - and sets specific criteria for each. The higher up the ladder a teacher moves, the larger their salary boost.

All five area school districts have set their highest pay supplement at between $7,000 and $8,000 a year.

But even if the program comes to fruition, Hernando's teacher union is discouraging its members from participating.

"It is just another morale-busting plan coming down from the state," union president Missy Keller said.

Rather than offering promotions, as lawmakers suggest, Keller said the program provides only a salary stipend. Teachers will have to compete for it, she said, and some won't even be eligible.

The Pasco School Board is preparing to extend its plan for a career ladder - with its estimated $14-million annual cost - later this month. Teachers already are applying.

"We're going on the assumption that the program will be funded or the (pilot) grant renewed," assistant superintendent Bob Dorn said.

At the same time, Dorn said, the administration and teachers union are ready to renegotiate next year's salary schedule if the Legislature delays or repeals the program, which some are talking about. The district can't afford its career ladder as written, he said.

Pinellas school officials are taking a wait-and-see approach, spokesman Ron Stone said. Like the other districts, Pinellas developed its $26-million career ladder contingent upon state funding.

If it goes forward without state support, the district would have to restructure its plan, Stone said. But if the state unexpectedly finds money for the program, the district would have to scramble to get it up and running.

"There is a concern on our part," Stone said.

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, thinks there is a "reasonably good" chance lawmakers will take districts off the hook. "They're not unrealistic about it," Moore said.

Yvonne Lyons, executive director for the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, is trying to find some good in the situation.

If the career ladder collapses, she said, at least the district will have spent time devising useful ways to mentor new teachers and teachers with problems. That has been a union priority for years, Lyons said.

And at least a few teachers got one year of increased pay through the pilot, she said.

"Everybody is just sitting around waiting for the ax to drop," Lyons said.

The issue is a big one, said David Mosrie, executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. With so many rumors and nothing certain, he said, school officials have reason to be concerned.

"You can't continue to address growth and class size and give adequate pay to teachers if you create another program skimming money off the top," Mosrie said. "It's just another unfunded mandate."

- Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 352 754-6115.

[Last modified April 5, 2004, 01:20:27]

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