Teacher pay delays frustrate Florida’s Board of Education
Teacher pay delays frustrate Florida’s Board of Education

Avatar of Andrew Atterbury

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Some seven school districts in Florida have yet to finalize their plans for spending cash dedicated specifically for teacher salaries this year, delays that on Wednesday frustrated the state’s Board of Education.

Meeting in Key West, the board pressed local school leaders on the lagging pay disputes, which have now extended well beyond the October deadline spelled out in state law for distributing the money. Board members harped on rising costs tied to inflation and criticized teachers unions, a frequent target of the DeSantis admiration and Republican lawmakers, in voicing displeasure over the funding being withheld from educators due to contract bargaining.

“I’m kind of floored by the fact that the teachers’ union would have no incentive to speed things up and get money into the pockets of teachers. We constantly hear they don’t make enough, and they can barely stay in the profession because they’re not getting paid enough,” said Esther Byrd, a board member recently appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. “And yet we have dollars sitting there that should be in their bank accounts.”

Florida’s Department of Education reported Wednesday that teacher salary distribution plans were pending at seven districts — Leon, Bradford, Brevard, Lee, Palm Beach, St. John’s and Florida A&M University's Developmental Research School — despite being due to the agency on Oct. 1.

In many cases, the plans are awaiting final approval or ratification from local school and union leaders, superintendents told the state board. Leon County, however, is meeting Thursday to consider a pay proposal that could resolve or delay its compliance with the law depending on the union’s decision, said superintendent Rocky Hanna.

State lawmakers, led by DeSantis, in 2020 carved out $500 million dedicated to increasing the minimum teacher salary in the state to $47,500 as part of a historic funding push meant to draw interest in teaching. The Legislature in 2021 added $50 million to the budget line, bringing the total to $550 million for the current school year.

Some district leaders explained to the board Wednesday that negotiations were stalled by fall student enrollment counts that declined this year, leading to less money for salaries aside from the specific pot of state cash for teacher pay.

Leon County, for example, received an additional $548,904 from the state for teacher salaries this school year, but the money isn’t stretching very far, Hanna told the board.

That cash is set to raise beginning teacher salaries by $378 while fueling a boost of only $31 for veteran teachers in 2021-22, Hanna said. The superintendent also noted that a teacher in year 11 now makes the same salary as a new teacher in Leon County under the state’s rules for how the salary money must be applied.

“As far as morale goes, that’s a morale breaker for a lot of people,” Hanna said.

Board of Education members told school leaders that “the clock is ticking” on the funding, warning that it could revert back to the state coffers if plans aren’t finalized by the end of the year. The board blasted schools for missing the state’s deadline, which they said will ultimately cost teachers money as the U.S. endures “record inflation.”

Board member Ben Gibson pointed to veteran teachers making up the majority of union membership as one factor contributing to the pay delays.

“They’re going to be looking out for the veteran teachers even if it means not implementing the law – that’s, I think, the bottom line here,” Gibson said.

Leaders with the state’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, acknowledged that unions need to be more aggressive in settling contracts faster but said that lawmakers have put too many rules around bargaining that can slow down the process.

The FEA denied that unions are advocating for veteran teachers over new educators and claim that the average teacher salaries are still middling even though the state has raised pay for starting educators.

“Teachers with experience are being sacrificed in this process,” FEA president Andrew Spar said in an interview.

Florida’s schools are set to have even more funding for teacher salaries next fall after the Legislature approved adding $250 million to the pot during the 2022 session. That would mean an additional $2.7 million for Leon County, as one example.

Still, board members cautioned districts that they didn't want to be bogged down in negotiations late in the year with this funding.

“There seems to be a common thread I’m hearing … ‘We appreciate the raises, but [the Legislature] clearly didn’t know what they were doing when they did this,’ – that their intent was somehow open for interpretation,” said board member Ryan Petty.

“We intend to hold districts accountable for following the law, regardless of what law comes down from the Legislature,” Petty added.