Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | July 1, 2021
The prospect of a $1,000 bonus rewarding a year of hard work in Florida’s public schools might not come to fruition for some teachers and principals, as promised.
The Department of Education’s guidelines explaining who’s eligible for the money, which landed in superintendents’ email inboxes late Wednesday, state that the educators must have held a qualified position by June 2 and be “currently employed full time.”
The language raised concerns among teacher union leaders across the state, who said it seemed to rule out faculty members who worked the full pandemic year but retired or resigned after classes ended. At the same time, they noted, it also appeared to include teachers hired late in the year who secured positions for 2021-22.
“Just because someone retired at the end of this hard year, you’re not going to give them the bonus?” said Nancy Velardi, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said she did not have information on how the rules would impact educators who retired. In touting the bonus plan, Gov. Ron DeSantis repeatedly stated his desire to recognize the teachers who made it through the past year’s “unique set of circumstances.”
The Florida Education Association said it had received several emails from teachers who retired at the end of their school year, questioning whether they would be included.
“If the governor wants to show that he values educators, these relief payments should have been handled differently,” Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar said. “What’s happening appears to show how little regard he has for the work of our teachers and staff over the past year.”
The state also did not provide money for teachers who do not have full-time classroom assignments, such as guidance counselors, or to other employees who also helped keep schools open. Some districts, including Pinellas, decided separately to give bonuses to those workers, including new retirees.
“It isn’t for the future,” Velardi noted. “It’s for what they did this past year.”
The directions from the state came as the Department of Education prepared to send the bonus checks directly to teachers and principals. This move differs from past distribution, which the districts have disbursed through their payroll departments.
The state instructed districts to provide lists of eligible employees, including their mailing addresses and Social Security numbers, by July 13. A spokeswoman for the department said she did not know when the checks would be sent, though state officials have said they aim to have them delivered before classes resume in August.
The state’s move to mail each check has created a stir.
Some critics pounced on the idea that Gov. Ron DeSantis was seeking credit for establishing the bonuses with money from a federal stimulus package that no Republicans supported. Others raised questions about the state’s ability to properly withhold payroll taxes and deliver IRS tax forms to all recipients — particularly since the state does not directly employ teachers.
“What happens if names are left off?” United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace asked. “What happens if people get paid who shouldn’t have been paid? We have concerns with this model.”
Lawyers for the department said in a memo that the tax issue is not applicable because the money is tax-exempt as a “qualified disaster relief payment.” As a precaution, the state suggested that recipients consult their own tax advisers.
The Florida Education Association has questioned whether the federal government will accept the state’s interpretation.