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Senate budget rewards teachers

Republican leaders propose boosting salaries by 8 percent as part of a larger effort to recruit and retain more teachers.

By SHELBY OPPEL and WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Republicans who control the Legislature are trying to win the hearts of education-minded voters, but the state's teachers may be the biggest beneficiaries.

Senate leaders on Friday unveiled plans to boost teacher salaries by 8 percent, twice the percentage increase that most teachers received last year.

The salary increase is part of a larger proposal to recruit more teachers and keep them in the classroom, with annual bonuses of up to $3,500 for those who teach in math, science and other shortage areas, and in the state's worst-performing schools.

In a rare alliance, Democrats and teachers union leaders are backing the Republican initiative. The unions welcome any attempt to raise Florida salaries closer to the national average.

"We're ecstatic about where we're heading," said Marshall Ogletree of the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. "Now we've got to bring the House along."

The teacher proposal was included in the Senate's version of the near-$50-billion state budget for next year. It is part of the opening negotiations between the Senate, House and Gov. Jeb Bush during this year's legislative session.

Ultimately, the pot of money available for teacher raises this fall will be a compromise between the Senate and House proposals. The House plan also includes money for raises and bonuses, but not as much.

In Pinellas this year, the average teacher will earn $36,750 -- roughly comparable to the statewide average. If the full 8 percent were approved by the School Board, the Senate's proposal would boost the average Pinellas salary by $2,940 next year, to $39,690.

Florida teachers earn about $4,700 less annually than the national average, according to the FTP-NEA. The union says teachers need an 8 percent boost for the next two years to close the gap.

That gap must close if Florida wants to attract and keep high-caliber teachers, the unions argue. While the Senate and House differ on how much money to devote to that effort, Republicans in both chambers say they share a focus on improving teacher quality this Legislative session.

To that end, the Senate proposal includes $72-million for salary bonuses for certain teachers.

Annual bonuses of up to $3,500 would go to "outstanding" teachers at schools rated "F" under the state's grading plan. Principals could use the money to recruit new teachers or to encourage veterans to stay. Local school boards would approve the bonus payments, based on principal recommendations and student performance. There are no F-rated schools in the Tampa Bay area, but local teachers would be eligible for another bonus under the Senate plan.

Up to $1,500 would go to teachers who are certified to teach in statewide shortage areas -- math, science, computer science, foreign languages and special education, which includes classes for disabled students.

Senate leaders say the bonuses and salary raises would help ease the state's impending shortage of almost 24,000 new teachers over the next ten years.

Overall, the Senate would increase spending on public schools by almost $1-billion next year, compared to an $800-million increase proposed by the House. Both figures exceed Bush's recommended increase of $720-million.

"It looks like it's shaping up to be a good year for Florida teachers," said Justin Sayfie, a spokesman for Bush.

Senate Democrats, who are in the minority in the chamber, applauded their colleagues' plan, noting that it mirrored their education agenda.

"We are pleased that the moderate Senate Republicans have listened to Democrats, to teachers, students and parents who have called for putting education first," Senate Democratic leader Buddy Dyer of Orlando said in a written statement.

Senate Republican leaders said they found most of the increase by reducing the amount of money school districts must pay into the state's retirement system, which is flush after nearly a year of market gains. House Speaker John Thrasher said Friday he was nervous about tampering with those funds, comparing it to raiding Social Security.

While spending more on K-12 education, the Senate plan includes an increase of up to 10 percent in tuition for university and community college students. The House and governor have recommended smaller increases at the universities and none for community college students.

The Senate budget also allocates more than $2-million for the Ringling Cultural Arts Center in Sarasota, which Bradenton Sen. John McKay is maneuvering to place under the control of Florida State University. The Senate plan does not include money for a medical school at FSU, a priority of Thrasher.

Senate leaders announced other spending goals Friday. As with education, some of the goals differ significantly from proposals by the House and the governor.

The Senate would spend more on transportation but wants fewer tax cuts than both the House and governor.

The Senate would cut taxes by about $267-million, compared to Bush's $578-million request. Thrasher has said he expects to pass about $600-million in tax cuts, including a proposal to reduce the state gas tax by a dime a gallon for 30 days late this summer. The measure would cost the state about $75-million and save motorists about $5 each.

The Senate did not include the gas tax in its budget, but it does support a sales tax holiday and would continue to phase out the per-drink alcohol tax and the intangibles tax on stocks and bonds.

"We have a choice," said Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach. "Our choice is that education and roads are more important than tax cuts."

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