Florida school superintendents weigh in on Gov. Ron DeSantis' pay increase for teachers

click to enlarge Florida school superintendents weigh in on Gov. Ron DeSantis' pay increase for teachers
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When Gov. Ron DeSantis made a pitch this month to raise the minimum salaries of Florida public-school teachers to $47,500, questions lingered over how lawmakers would go about paying for the plan.

In Florida, county school boards are responsible for negotiating contracts with local teacher unions, and those contracts spell out how much teachers get paid. But the Legislature and the governor play the key role in deciding how much money school districts can spend overall.

With that in mind, four county school superintendents helped the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday delve into some of the nitty-gritty parts of salary negotiations, as well as issues districts take into consideration for teacher pay.

The superintendents, who represented the districts in Jackson, Osceola, St. Johns and Sarasota counties, agreed that retaining and recruiting teachers is one of the most-challenging issues facing their districts.

They also agreed that if the Legislature approves the governor’s proposed $603 million teacher-compensation plan, they would prefer to see the money go into the “base student allocation” —- a pot of money districts can use with more flexibility.

“As you heard, the uniqueness of every district and how we have to try and get to the balance point, I think it leaves most superintendents to ask not to have too many strings attached,” St. Johns County Superintendent Tim Forson said.

If the Legislature, however, decides to offer guidance to Florida’s 67 school districts about how to spend the money for increased teacher pay, the superintendents urged clarity in the instructions.

“There’s been a number of times where guidance was provided and there were 67 school board attorneys trying to interpret exactly what the intent of the Legislature was,” Sarasota County Superintendent Todd Bowden said.

Bowden also asked lawmakers to take into account that for every $1 they mandate for teacher salaries, the districts will need to budget $1.17 for costs that include employer-related taxes.

Another issue that came up during the panel discussion was related to the salaries of teachers who have years of experience and ensuring there is a balance with the amounts paid to new, less-experienced teachers.

In Sarasota County, Bowden said teachers are offered an “experience credit” when negotiating salaries, something he said was “very important” to the district in retaining quality instructors.

“One of the things that we are going to have to be very mindful of if we are going to talk about a minimum teacher salary is that you can run into issues of compression, where you can have teachers in their first year … and teachers in their 15th year making the same salary,” Bowden said.

The base salary for classroom teachers currently ranges between $32,237 and $47,800.

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The governor’s office, which released the plan Oct. 7, has not answered questions about plans to better compensate teachers with years of experience. But DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferre tweeted this month that the governor is reviewing “other compensation programs” in addition to raising minimum teacher salaries.

According to the latest data from the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, the base salary for classroom teachers currently ranges between $32,237 and $47,800. The salary range offers a glimpse at some of the pay disparity across the state.

Rep. Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who chairs the House education-budget panel, said some classroom teachers in the state make $100,000, while others make in the lower end of the $30,000 range. Taking that into consideration, some districts are expected to spend more money than others to make the governor’s proposal a reality.

For example, Osceola County Superintendent Debra Pace said it would cost her district between $9 million and $10 million to bring all instructional personnel to a minimum salary of $47,500.

But Bowden estimated it would cost the Sarasota County district about $1.8 million to bring 902 teachers up to DeSantis’ recommended base. Sarasota County’s starting salary is $44,300.

Lawmakers are considering DeSantis’ proposal in the midst of being warned about an economic slowdown in the coming years. But the governor has maintained his plan is “easily doable” within the state’s expected budget next fiscal year.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, has not expressed much enthusiasm about the governor’s proposal, but Latvala said Thursday the speaker’s office has been “absolutely” supportive of holding discussions about the issue.

Latvala added the speaker’s office is also studying the issue and looking at data that could support different options for increasing teacher pay. The 2020 legislative session starts Jan. 14.

The superintendents said they appreciated lawmakers taking time to discuss what Bowden called a “long overdue” issue.

“Certainly, we can bog this down with a lot of technicalities, but I think we would be remiss if we didn’t close with thank you for the attention on teacher salaries,” Bowden said.

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