Proposal to compress veteran teacher salaries into same bracket as new teachers puts union, school board at impasse

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Pensacola News Journal | by Madison Arnold | January 14, 2021

In a year when they’ve had to adjust to COVID-19 protocols, Hurricane Sally and online teaching, some veteran Escambia County School District teachers are now fighting for higher wages.

The Escambia Education Association teachers’ union and school district are officially at an impasse when it comes to their 2020-2021 salary negotiations. Veteran teachers are hoping to get community members to speak on their behalf at the school board meeting next week.

“I would like for parents to know that we love their students. We are working very hard but we, as employees, deserve to feel valued and those of us that have years of experience and that have dedicated so many years of service to this county, we deserve to be recognized for that,” said Carol Cleaver, a science teacher and vice president of the teachers’ union.

The school board meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19, at the J.E. Hall Educational Services Center at 30 E. Texar Drive.

The difficulty with negotiations is rooted in a new state law passed this summer that requires school districts to raise the starting wage of new teachers. The school board’s proposal would increase the starting salary to $43,500 and would compress the salary schedule, meaning that many teachers who have been with the district for more than 10 years would be compressed into the same salary bracket as new teachers fresh out of college.

“We feel dejected. We feel disappointed that in a year when we’re all doing double the work and we are putting our own health and safety on the line to keep schools running, they cannot do this small amount to recognize veteran teachers,” Cleaver said.

How the proposed pay schedule would work

In Escambia County, teacher pay is based on “levels,” which are determined by several metrics but are most heavily weighted on experience. There are as many as 150 levels — teachers who are fresh out of college or only have a few years of experience, for example, typically fall between levels 1 through 29, while veteran teachers with several years of experience are at much higher levels and therefore have higher salaries.

The crux of the teachers’ union disagreement with the school district’s proposal is that teachers who fall into the lower level categories will see a much higher percentage increase in pay than teachers who have much more experience.

For example, a level 1 teacher right out of college who makes the current starting salary of $38,000 will see their salary bump to the new minimum of $43,500 — a yearly salary increase of $5,500 or about 14%.

But the school district has said that for teachers who already make at least $43,500 or more, they will see only a 2.15% increase in pay.

That means a teacher at level 90, for example, who makes $55,800 and has about 10 to 15 years of experience, will see their pay bump to $57,000, a $2.15% increase. If they were given the same 14% increase as a level 1 teacher, they would see their pay jump to $63,612.

While the teachers’ union is happy to see starting salaries for new teachers increase, the disparity in increases for veteran teachers compared to freshman teachers is rubbing several educators the wrong way.

Darzell Warren, the teachers’ union president, is at level 96 and has 20 years of experience in Escambia County schools, plus three years of experience before that in Texas. She makes $57,000 and is disappointed that her pay would only increase by such a small amount, when teachers with much less experience will see their pay skyrocket.

“With the governor’s new minimum teacher salary, Florida would be No. 5 in the country for teacher pay, which is good,” Warren said. “But what are you doing with veteran teachers? They’re going to start walking out the door because you’re expecting them to train our new teachers while doing their own jobs, and devaluing their experience.”

Veterans teachers: ‘We would like to feel a little more supported’

Superintendent Tim Smith said that while the two groups are at an impasse, he hopes it won’t be a long process, though it will take a hearing with a magistrate to resolve the issue.

Cleaver said the anxiety of this school year has been unlike anything she’s experienced. She is a 16-year teacher and has had two sons graduate from Escambia County schools.

She said she’s heard talk of teachers wanting to work in neighboring counties or leave teaching altogether. She pointed to the list of resignations in the next school board agenda, which includes eight teacher resignations or retirements and eight requests for leaves of absence.

“I want to be clear. I love my school. I love this school district and I think everybody is working really hard, but we would like to feel a little more supported,” Cleaver said.

Warren said teachers are facing a lot of stress this year with staff testing positive for COVID-19 and students switching between in-person and online, among other things.

“They have second jobs. I don’t think the district is looking at the fact that they have employees whose spouses have potentially lost their job and that is the only income they have coming in. We have single parents who are dealing with the extra added expense of daycare and everything. For them, this would go a long way in helping them financially in their homes,” Warren said.

“If you’re out in the civilian sector and someone comes and you’ve got to train them and you find out they’re making more money than you and you’re doing the same job, most people would leave,” Warren said. “You’re telling me that they’re valued more than I’m valued but my experience is worth something. That’s what we want them to know. Their experience is worth something.”

School board says issue comes down to fund balance

To implement the teachers’ plan, the school district would have to spend an additional $1.6 million, Warren said.

Kevin Adams, a school board member, said an issue is the district’s fund balance. If it spends too much from the fund balance, it could affect the district’s bond rating and make future construction of new schools more expensive. 

“We try to stay financially sound. It’s a tug-o-war between, I love the teachers, I’d like to give them everything I could, but then you’ve got the tug-o-war on the other side to stay solvent,” Adams said.

Adams said the next step will be a hearing to hopefully come up with a conclusion to the impasse, but the board still has the ultimate say on what salaries to pass through.

“When you have a magistrate involved, their decision is key. What they say basically is the thing that you would want to follow in general,” he said.

Support staff, including dining workers, custodians and bus drivers, also hoped for an increase in pay after a difficult year. Their union is requesting support at the school board meeting as well.

David Elzbeck, union president of education staff professionals, said the district has had difficulty finding and retaining employees because of the pay. Elzbeck previously worked as an HVAC technician for the district before moving to the president role. 

The board agenda for the next meeting alone lists 24 education staff professionals, or ESP employees, requesting a leave of absence and another nine who have resigned or retired. That group asked for a 5% raise from the school board but it was offered 2%.

“If we were a business, our business is students, the education of students. So what do you need to run a business? You need educators, you need staff workers, you need bus operators and bus aides to safely get these kids to school, to educate them and to get them home in a safe manner,” Elzbeck said. 

Photo: From left, Escambia County teachers Lisette Guttery, Cheri Stoker, Carol Cleaver, and Kimberly Garman listen to the pubic forum on their phones after speaking themselves in favor of a mask mandate before the Escambia County Commissioners meeting in downtown Pensacola Thursday, August 6, 2020. Gregg Pachkowski