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Many teachers will wait for raise

The Legislature okayed a 7.8 percent increase, but frustration is rising in districts that won't get that much.

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 12, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Lawmakers boasted this spring about a historic, generous state education budget that would give substantial raises to teachers.

But with classes beginning around the state this month, reality -- and frustration -- is setting in for some school districts.

Sixty teachers in Escambia County have resigned this summer after getting news that they would get no pay raises and a reduction in health benefits.

In Putnam County, east of Gainesville, school Superintendent David Buckles is livid after hearing about a local lawmaker who bragged that the Legislature sent enough money to districts to provide 8 percent raises to teachers.

"That's not only a lie. It's a damn lie," said Buckles. At best, there will be enough money for a 4.8-percent raise for teachers, said Rita Moody, president of the Putnam Federation of Teachers United.

It's true that the Legislature put an additional $868-million in the education budget this spring -- an increase of 7.8 percent. But that didn't mean every school district got that much money. The increases ranged from 2.61 percent in Jackson County, to 11.86 percent in Osceola County, because of the way the complicated school funding formula distributes money to school districts.

Still, lawmakers said at the end of the legislative session that teachers should see at least 6 percent or 7 percent raises.

"If any school district in the state of Florida does not give their teachers a substantial raise, then y'all ought to go out there and hold them accountable," House Speaker John Thrasher told lawmakers at the end of the legislative session in May.

During a visit to Putnam County this week, Gov. Jeb Bush was surprised to learn that teachers are heading into the school year next week with no raise. School and teacher union officials say they will be at the bargaining table in September, and teachers should see raises by the end of that month.

But Bush complained Friday that "There is such a disconnect between the good stuff that's happened" in Tallahassee on education funding and reforms, and what is carried out in local school districts. "It's frustrating," Bush said during a meeting with state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, who heads the Senate's budget committee on education.

Only about a third of Florida's 67 counties are finished negotiating pay raises with teacher unions. A list of the results shows a range of increases from about 4 percent to 8 percent, with half of the districts giving 6 percent pay raises.

The average teacher pay in Florida in 1998-99 was $35,915, about $4,700 below the national average. Last year's average teacher pay in Florida was $36,524.

Teacher pay raises for the upcoming school year vary in the Tampa Bay area, depending on how districts calculate them.

Citrus County will give teachers a 4.5 percent salary increase, and Hernando County will give an average 6 percent increase. Hillsborough's increase is 8.2 percent -- but that includes 2.55 percent because teachers will be working five additional days, and a .65 percent increase in health insurance costs that the district will cover for teachers.

Pinellas' teacher salary increase is 6.2 percent. Pasco's increase is listed as 8.2 percent, but that includes pay for extra workdays and other factors that add to the percentage increase.

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said rising health care costs have limited school districts' ability to give even higher raises. Pinellas school district insurance premiums went up 20 percent, he said.

Rising health insurance costs also played a part in Escambia County's struggles with teacher pay.

In Putnam County, the school district has been struggling with declining enrollment that cuts the amount of money it gets from the state. The less money coming in, the less money for teacher raises. The district got a 4.73 percent increase in school funding from the Legislature this year.

So school officials were angered this week when Bush was in the county for a visit.

Bush walked into a meeting of teachers at a Holiday Inn and told them they would be getting a 12 percent raise, said Moody, the local teacher union president. Her phone started ringing off the hook, with teachers inquiring about that 12 percent raise. Moody knows the district can't afford that. "When the governor speaks, this is gospel for people. . . . We could end up in impasse on this," Moody said.

Bush spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst said the governor spoke generally to the Putnam teachers about record increases to education this year, but he didn't mention a 12 percent pay raise. He did discuss a specific bonus program approved by the Legislature that would award teachers $1,200 -- which could have led to the confusion over the 12 percent figure.

"He definitely did not tell them they were going to get a 12 percent raise," Hirst said.

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