“While the governor’s initiative to raise base teacher pay is encouraging, it’s also stacked veteran teachers on top of beginning teachers, which has been a huge morale issue this year,” Rocky Hanna said.
Tallahassee Democrat | By Ana Goñi-Lessan | Updated May 3, 2022
Caitlyn Whitley has been a special education teacher at a Title I school in Leon County for a decade.
But her salary, even with 10 years experience, is now the same as a 22-year-old straight out of college. She blames district priorities and a 2020 initiative by Gov. Ron DeSantis to raise starting teacher pay to $47,500 for compressing wages.
“It’s disrespectful,” she told the Tallahassee Democrat.
The move to improve the average teacher salary in Florida has caused concern among some district administrators in the state, who are also worried about meeting the demands of increasing pay for veteran teachers. As a way to gain more control over funding, districts are looking to pass ballot referendums to funnel tax money toward improving teachers’ salaries.
A referendum proposed by Duval County Public Schools for a 1-mill property tax increase is headed to voters this fall.
And Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna said he is considering bringing to the school board the idea of a special half-millage property tax proposal, which could generate almost $10 million per year to fund veteran teacher salaries.
If the idea makes its way to the ballot and voters approve, Leon County residents would pay a new yearly property tax of $50 per $100,000 in taxable property value
“While the governor’s initiative to raise base teacher pay is encouraging, it’s also stacked veteran teachers on top of beginning teachers, which has been a huge morale issue this year,” said Hanna, who has been grilled on teachers salaries at a series of recent meetings.
Whitley makes around $43,000. Her salary as a senior employee has failed to rise at the same rate as a starting teacher with Leon County Schools, who would make the same.
DeSantis’ initiative has allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past three years to teacher pay. Districts, however, are only allowed to allocate 20% of those funds to veteran teachers, while beginning teachers get 80%.
This wage compression fails to reflect differences in experience and tenure.
The Leon County school district employs about 4,500 people, according to district spokesperson Chris Petley.
Of those 4,500, approximately 30 employees make over $100,000 per year.
The city of Tallahassee, for example, has about 4,000 employees, with 282 of them making more than $100,000 per year, according to the Tallahassee Democrat’s 2021-2022 data.
The city also has 39 employees who make more than $150,000 a year — no one at the school district makes more than $150,000.
Last week, top city officials announced the promotion of nine people to senior leadership positions along with about $225,000 in raises for the top executives.
That caught Hanna’s attention.
“I’m sure they work hard, but those in the public school systems work hard too, and we don’t have nearly as much to show for our hard work,” Hanna said.
Scott Mazur, president of the Leon Classroom Teachers Association, supports the idea of bringing a referendum to taxpayers.
“I think that this is long past due given what the Legislature is unwilling to fund,” Mazur said.
He said the union has not yet reached a tentative agreement with the Leon County School Board.
In a previous school board meeting, Hanna said because the school district has not reached a tentative agreement, he will have to go to the Florida State Board of Education meeting on May 11 in Key West to explain why.
One of the main holdups is salary. The governor’s priority to increase teacher pay in Florida is mainly going to beginning teachers at the expense of veteran teachers, Mazur said.
“(Whitley is) phenomenal at her job, and she makes just as much as someone who just walked through the door,” Mazur said.
The governor’s office rejected the teachers’ argument, noting that in 2022-2023 the legislature provided an additional $250 million more than last year’s allocation of $550 millio. Governor’s office spokesperson Christina Pushaw said of that $250 million, $125 million will go to veteran teacher pay increases.
“Any suggestion that Governor DeSantis has only supported new teachers in Florida simply is not true,” Pushaw said.
Reasons for referendum
In Duval County, if the 1-mill property tax increase on the Aug. 23 primary election ballot is approved by voters, the money will go to teacher salaries, upgrading sports facilities and reinvesting in arts programs.
Hanna said his idea for the voter referendum, if passed, would go solely to veteran teachers’ salaries.
Both Leon County and Duval County were targeted by the state during the COVID-19 pandemic for mandating masks in public schools, a move that went against DeSantis’ executive order that allowed only parents to decide whether their children would wear masks in schools.
Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, the House education budget-writer, initially proposed pulling $200 million from the dozen school districts that implemented mask requirements. The “Putting Parents First Adjustment” in the legislative budget eventually morphed into withholding school recognition money and doling it out to the other 55 districts.
The Florida Department of Education grants recognition funds to schools that achieve an “A” grade or are considered “commendable,” schools that improve at least one letter grade of rating, or schools that maintain their improvement from the previous year.
“The only way for us to take control back locally is to control a funding source,” Hanna said.
Large school districts, including Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, already use millage supplements to boost their salary amounts.
In the fall of 2020, Leon County voters approved the creation of a Children’s Services Council, which receives funding from a .375% property tax rate. The money raised, over $7 million, will fund the council until Oct. 1 of this year.
Whitley said Leon County voters wouldn’t be faced with another referendum if the district had kept up with raises over the past 10 years. She is skeptical that even the referendum could change the trajectory.
“Assuming that people would care about teachers, which is hit or miss, is whether it would pass,” she said.