DeSantis teacher pay push increased salaries, stoked tensions

By Andrew Atterbury

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and state lawmakers pumped a half-billion dollars into teacher pay during the 2020 session, money that has boosted salaries but also stoked tensions between newer teachers getting the biggest cut and experienced educators feeling shortchanged.

One of DeSantis’ top priorities during the 2020 legislative session was to boost starting teacher pay to $47,500. He spent much of his political capital and focus getting that $500 million plan through the legislature, which ultimately approved the plan only after some money was set aside for charter schools and $100 million went to experienced teachers, a big push for Democrats and teachers unions.

Now, DeSantis’ so-called “year of the teacher” is playing out exactly how some predicted.

Experienced teachers and other employees are annoyed that budding teachers are seeing pay increases close to 16 percent in certain instances. At least one district has tried to spread the new funding evenly, but had its plan blocked by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. And pay negotiations in some counties have reached a boiling point, with unions and school officials still at odds over how to divvy up the state funding.

“Some teachers are getting very, very small raises while others are getting very significant pay raises,” Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said in an interview.

By one measure, DeSantis’ teacher pay plan has made serious progress — making Florida a top state nationally for minimum teacher pay.

Beginning pay rates for teachers at 20 school districts examined by POLITICO are set to reach an average of nearly $44,700 this year, a mark that would put Florida well above the national average if that trend carries throughout the state’s other 47 counties. Seven of these school districts hit the governor’s goal of a starting salary at $47,500 or above.

The average starting salary for new Florida teachers was $37,636 in fiscal year 2018, compared to $39,249 nationally. That disparity was central to the DeSantis administration’s pitch to lawmakers when pushing through the pay raise package, which the governor argued would help attract job candidates to the education field.

The plan is working by design so far with thousands of teachers across Florida set to see raises.

Starting salaries rose by an average of nearly $5,780 among 13 counties where pay data from 2019-20 and 2020-21 was readily available, according to salary spending plans obtained from the Florida Department of Education. The increases range from $9,312 for Okaloosa County teachers to $1,993 in Pinellas County. Not all school districts have finished crafting their pay plans.

The $500 million proposal approved by the state Legislature in 2020 directed districts to raise salaries for full-time classroom teachers and certified pre-kindergarten teachers toward $47,500 or as high as possible considering the cash available. Of that money, a smaller pool — $100 million — was set aside for scores of veteran teachers and other school employees.

Some, including state lawmakers, predicted the tensions now playing out.

Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland), the Senate's top education budget-writer, warned the pay plan was likely to unleash dissention in the education ranks. DeSantis originally wanted $602.3 million, but Stargel and other lawmakers cut that proposal as the coronavirus pandemic forced them to steer more money into reserve funds.

“I’m conflicted because we could have done better,” Stargel said on the Senate floor in March. “Regardless of the amount, but in our approach."

A clear example of the dissension some predicted is playing out in Seminole County.

Teachers on the district’s lowest pay scale last year are set to receive a $6,310 raise in 2020-21, thanks to the state’s pay plan. Some 2,007 teachers received pay increases to hit Seminole’s new base rate of $46,310, raises that cost $8.9 million.

Seminole teachers who were already being paid above $46,310 received a 1.4 percent raise, according to school officials. The average pay increase for nearly 2,300 teachers was $698, according to Department of Education data.

The school district had $2.2 million combined to spend on raises for veteran teachers and other employees, such as instructional coaches and mental health counselors. Seminole dipped into its general budget to pay a $46,310 minimum salary for non-classroom staff after reaching an agreement with the local teachers union.

School leaders in Seminole acknowledge it wasn’t an easy decision to kick in more money with districts across the state facing unprecedented budget and enrollment uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus.

“We were happy to have teacher raises this year,” Mark Russi, director of employee and government relations at Seminole County Public Schools, said in an interview. “But what impact it has later, we don’t know yet.”

Still, veteran teachers feel slighted seeing new educators reaching salaries that took them years to obtain, said Dan Smith, president of the Seminole Education Association.

The feeling is that school leaders “don’t value experience,” Smith said. “They look at it as a budget item.”

It’s a similar story In Miami-Dade County where teachers now start out at $47,500 compared to $41,000 last year. That equates to a $6,500 raise for 986 of the county’s newest teachers, according to salary data. Comparatively, 644 teachers who made between $46,500 and $46,749 last year are set to receive a raise of $1,250 or $1,001, according to salary data.

In Pinellas County, district leaders were left with a large chunk of money after hitting the $47,500 mark.

The base teacher salary in Pinellas was only $1,993 shy of $47,500 last year, a gap that took $3.2 million to fill for 1,880 educators. The district has about $12.7 million remaining to negotiate raises for veteran teachers and other employees, an outcome that other counties aren’t seeing.

Union County officials originally aimed to distribute the new salary money evenly to all teachers who earned below $47,500. But Corcoran, the state’s education commissioner, rejected that proposal because it failed to raise the district’s minimum base salary “to the maximum amount achievable,” as required by state law, he wrote in an Oct. 8 email to school leaders obtained by POLITICO.

“The department cannot and will not break the law, and moreover cannot knowingly and willingly be an enabler or facilitator of Union County School District’s breaking Florida laws,” Corcoran wrote.

Polk County is among the districts still negotiating pay raises, a process that could drag on well into 2021. Contracts for Polk County teachers are unlikely to be decided this calendar year after the school district and teachers union hit an impasse in contract negotiations last month.

The contract is tied up, in part, because the local union is pushing for support staff that aren’t included in the state’s plan, such as secretaries, to receive a minimum $10 hourly rate, according to Stephanie Yocum, president of the Polk Education Association.

School leaders say they are grateful to have money to provide teacher raises especially now — when educators are leading online and in-person classes simultaneously, smack dab in the middle of a pandemic.

Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna last week credited the DeSantis administration for ensuring districts could deliver a pay increase to teachers during turbulent economic times.

“No one doing a heavier lift in our society than classroom teachers,” Hanna said at an Oct. 13 school board meeting. “Did we get to $47,500? No, we did not. But we increased our beginning pay nearly $6,000.”

But unions are also working to avoid scenarios where teachers could land raises less than 1 percent. Florida’s pay plan is a “slap in the face” of longtime educators that worked through state budget cuts during the Great Recession, Yocum said.

“What the Legislature has done is divide to conquer us,” Yocum said.