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Education

Raises to keep Pinellas teachers in lead

A 6.4 percent increase is tentatively approved. It brings their wages to where teachers appear generally satisfied.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published August 2, 2006


LARGO - Pinellas teachers, said to be plagued by poor morale, will likely see a second straight year of good raises and continue their run as the best-paid teaching force in the five-county Tampa Bay area.

A bargaining committee made up of administrators, union leaders and other employees on Tuesday tentatively approved a settlement that would give Pinellas teachers a 6.4 percent raise this year. The average salary will climb to $46,770, up from $43,916.

Another committee still must sign off on the package, which also must be ratified by teachers and pass muster with the School Board. But bargaining officials expected it to be approved.

The boost comes on the heels of last year's raise, which averaged nearly 9 percent - the largest in 15 years.

This year's deal marks two Pinellas milestones - the first time beginning teachers with a bachelor's degree will earn $36,000 and the first time those with master's degrees and at least 27 years' experience will hit the $60,000 mark.

The agreement puts Pinellas ahead of Hillsborough schools, its biggest rival in the regional competition for teachers. Hillsborough bargainers recently came to agreement on a 10 percent teacher raise that boosted starting teacher salaries to $35,012. The average teacher salary in Hillsborough hovers around $43,500.

"I'm very impressed with the salary schedule ... especially in this district, where housing is so expensive," said Christine Antal, a fourth-grade teacher at Belcher Elementary and a union representative who sits on the committee that signed off on the package Tuesday.

The seven-year veteran added: "I got a $2,200 raise. I think that's great."

Jade Moore, executive director of the teachers union, said the raises this year and last year would not have been nearly as generous without a special tax approved in a 2004 referendum. The tax was largely earmarked to make teacher salaries more competitive.

"You can imagine what this would look like if we didn't have the referendum money," Moore told the bargaining committee. "Otherwise we'd be looking at a really, really awful financial situation."

A recent Times poll of teachers in Pinellas and Hillsborough found poor morale among Pinellas' teachers, who are about 8,000-strong. On nearly all measures of teacher satisfaction, Pinellas teachers were less optimistic and less pleased with their working conditions than their peers in Hillsborough. They expressed more displeasure with the state's accountability system and felt more threatened in schools. Nearly 60 percent describe morale as fair or poor.

The findings were mirrored in a district survey of employees.

Teacher morale has surfaced as an issue in the campaign for four School Board seats that will culminate in the Sept. 5 election.

The new raise appears to bring salaries to a point that a majority of Pinellas teachers can live with. Asked in the Times poll what salary they thought was fair for a beginning teacher with a bachelor's degree, 20 percent said between $24,000 and $34,999. Another 34 percent said they thought a starting salary in the $35,000 to $39,999 range was fair.

The 6.4 percent raise "is a good number," said Pinellas School Board member Mary Russell, a strong teacher advocate. "I'd say we're getting there."

Salaries play a major role in morale, but working conditions do too, Russell said. Morale could improve, she said, if the district can improve classroom discipline and give teachers enough money to outfit their classrooms "so their raise doesn't end up being used on supplies."

Antal, the Belcher Elementary teacher, added that the district also could reduce paperwork and shorten staff meetings.

"Salary's important, but you don't think about that all the time," she said. "Everyone needs to feel valued and important ... We just need to stay positive."

Tuesday night, the School Board tentatively approved a $1.4-billion budget that includes nearly $25-million to cover the raises plus fringe benefits for about 8,000 teachers. The budget also includes money for 4 percent raises for other district employees, including principals, assistant principals and support employees.

PAY INCREASES:

Pinellas teachers aren't the only ones to see a nice raise this year, the result of a better than average budget year in Tallahassee. Teachers in all Tampa Bay area school districts also have received a nice bump.

Hillsborough County

Hillsborough teachers will see a 10 percent raise that brings the starting teacher salary to $35,012.

Pasco County

Pasco employs 4,700 teachers, and the district and union officials have reached a tentative agreement that would increase starting salaries for teachers with a bachelor's degree to $35,300, about a 7 percent bump.

Hernando County

Teachers union and district negotiators reached a tentative agreement late Monday to raise teacher salaries by an average of 7.5 percent this year. Teachers will likely see a starting salary of at least $32,000, an $1,800 increase from last year.

Citrus County

In Citrus County, district administrators and union officials have reached a tentative agreement that would bring teacher salaries to new highs with a 7 percent overall pay increase. Under the agreement, the district would pay $32,400 to a new teacher with a bachelor's degree.

Compiled by Mary Spicuzza, Eddy Ramirez, Tom Marshall and Letitia Stein.

[Last modified August 6, 2006, 07:26:40]


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