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Teachers see best salary deal in years

Pinellas officials say the package will help the district stay competitive with Hillsborough. Employees will vote this week to ratify the contract.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 5, 2000


After years of lackluster raises, Pinellas school and union officials are proud of their agreement to boost teacher salaries an average 7.7 percent.

For some teachers, the raise is 10 percent. For others, it is about 9 percent. Another group will get closer to 6 percent.

In the complicated world of education finance, school districts rely on average salary increases to explain how much more money they are giving their employees. But how well an individual teacher does each year depends on numerous factors, including education, years of experience, number of workdays and health insurance costs.

While some teachers will see less than the average 7.7 percent increase in 2000-2001, Pinellas officials say this salary package is unquestionably the best in a decade.

"I am extremely pleased," said Superintendent Howard Hinesley. "We have been attempting to listen to what our teachers have said."

It is no coincidence that this year is better than most.

State legislators pumped millions into local districts with a strict mandate: raise average teacher salaries 6 percent. Teacher unions have said the state would need to raise salaries about 8 percent for the next two years to close the gap between average Florida teacher salaries and the national average.

School districts say they need to boost salaries to recruit and retain teachers amid a national shortage. By fall, Pinellas needs to recruit 500 to 700 new teachers.

In Pinellas, the average teacher salary will increase 6 percent, plus another 1.7 percent because the agreement includes two extra training days. The highest raises are at the beginning of the pay scale, where teachers will get an average 10 percent increase; teachers in the middle will get an average 9 percent and teachers at the top will get an average 6 percent.

Other highlights of Pinellas' compensation package include:

* Health and life insurance packages are being changed in a way that district and union officials say will help most district employees. Union officials said that for some employees, health insurance costs actually will go down because the district continues to subsidize increasing health care costs. All employees will see dental benefit costs go down.

* Employees will be able to open medical spending accounts.

* Employees will be provided life insurance equal to their annual salary, rounded up to the nearest thousand dollars, with a minimum benefit of $15,000.

* New teachers in all fields, at all levels, will get one-time bonuses of $1,000.

* Existing teachers in identified critical shortage areas -- secondary math, science, computers, foreign language and special education -- will get $1,000 to attend conferences or pay for classroom supplies.

* The district will continue its efforts to provide mentors for teachers and reduce paperwork for special education teachers.

* At the end of the contract, June 30, 2001, the district will throw out the salary schedule and a new pay system will begin for the 2001-2002 school year. Before then, a committee will develop a new way to pay teachers that emphasizes competitive beginning salaries and steady incremental increases to encourage teachers to stay in Pinellas.

District employees will vote this week to ratify the contract. It is scheduled for final approval at the School Board's June 13 meeting.

In Pinellas, district and union officials say it is difficult to accurately compare salaries across districts. Each district, they say, has different priorities, costs of living, teaching conditions, training and benefits.

Inevitably, though, politicians, job candidates, teachers and even district and union officials make such comparisons.

Teachers talk about South Florida, where starting teachers and those at the top of the pay scale earn thousands more than teachers in Pinellas. District officials counter that it is more expensive to live in South Florida and that class sizes are larger.

"We started with 5.4 percent new money and we transformed it into 9 percent for some people," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "We did it without raising class sizes or cutting personnel."

Under Pinellas' plan, a new teacher's salary will be $28,800, up from $27,000 in 1999-2000; adding the one-time bonus of $1,000 puts the amount at $29,800. That is for working 198 days, which includes the two extra training days for all teachers.

At the top of the scale for teachers with bachelor's degrees -- those with 21 years of experience -- a teacher will earn more than $48,000. That is up from about $44,000 in 1999-2000. Each year, as teachers reach a new "step," their salaries increase.

How does Pinellas rate with neighboring districts, such as Pasco and Hillsborough?

In Pasco County, contract negotiations have not yet begun. But in 1999-2000, the current school year, a starting teacher with a bachelor's degree earns $26,700 for working 196 days. At the top of the scale, a teacher earns $43,900.

Pasco teacher contracts include a fully paid benefits package, a $12,000 life insurance policy and yearly step raises.

Union President Lynne Webb said her main goal this bargaining session will be to keep the fully paid benefits package and to improve salaries as much as possible -- although district officials are not sure how much they will be able to do that because of a $4-million special education budget shortfall.

"Our main priority will be to keep up with surrounding districts so that we can remain competitive," Webb said.

At first blush, Hillsborough's salary package for a new teacher might sound much better than Pinellas' deal.

In Hillsborough, school and union officials touted the increased beginning salary of $30,000 as the incentive that would lure much-needed new teachers to the district. First-year salaries had been $27,587 in the 1999-2000 school year.

The raises represent an average 8 percent pay increase, which includes a 5 percent salary increase, a .65 percent increase for higher insurance premiums and a 2.55 percent increase for the five additional days being added to a teacher's schedule next year.

Teachers at the highest end, with 35 years experience or more, also received raises, from $46,562 to $50,136.

So, Hillsborough will offer $1,200 more than Pinellas in starting salary, excluding the one-time bonus Pinellas is offering. But Hillsborough teachers will work 201 days, three more than Pinellas teachers.

Plus, new teachers in Hillsborough don't get step raises for seven years; they stay at $30,000. In Pinellas, a teacher with seven years of experience will earn $31,200.

The top of the pay scale is higher in Hillsborough than Pinellas, but it takes longer to get there than it does in Pinellas.

Yvonne Lyons, assistant executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, said union officials planned to argue next year for salary increases for every year of teacher seniority.

"If there had been additional money this year, we would have done it," she said. "It's not good professionally to have everyone at various (levels) making the same amount of money."

Pinellas officials have studied Hillsborough's teacher salary schedule and think Pinellas does quite well in comparison.

"Different districts do different things to make their schedules work," said Ron Stone, an associate superintendent who is the Pinellas' chief negotiator. "We think we're very competitive with Hillsborough."

Under Pinellas' proposal, non-administrative employees will receive average raises of 6 percent. Administrators will earn average raises of 5.5 percent. Secondary assistant principals will be paid to work 11 months, rather than 10. All principals will work 12-month schedules, instead of 11 months.

* * *

- Staff writers Sarah Schweitzer and Kent Fischer contributed to this report.

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