At the far end of the Florida Panhandle, the Escambia County School District recently finished negotiations with their teacher union over salaries. Gov. Ron DeSantis last year had signed a half-billion-dollar initiative with the goal of increasing starting salaries to at least $47,500 for Florida teachers.
But Escambia Education Association President Darzell Warren knew not to expect much regarding that goal.
“There was no way, here in Escambia County, that we were going to get to the $47,500 with the funds that were sent from the state,” Warren told the Phoenix.
Following the launch of the first starting-salary initiative, districts got more money from the state — but not always enough to get to that starting pay of $47,500, educators say. And questions remain on how long it will it take to reach that goal for teachers looking for higher wages.
The state House and Senate this legislative session will be building a state budget for 2021-22, and teacher pay and public education dollars in general will likely be high on the list in budget negotiations that will impact local school districts.
Will every Florida school district reach a starting salary of $47,500? It’s still not clear, following DeSantis’s initial push.
As teacher union president Warren said, “Although that was a good first step from the governor, to say $47,500 is the goal, they did not fund it well enough for that to happen here in Escambia County.”
How did it all play out?
At the end of the 2020 session, the Florida Legislature designated $500 million to boost the starting salary of Florida teachers, to be distributed to Florida’s 67 school districts. The funds also included $100 million to improve the pay for veteran teachers.
DeSantis declared 2020 the “Year of the Teacher” with those funds. His hope was to provide Florida teachers with a starting salary of at least $47,500 a year, but it quickly became clear that many districts would not reach the stated goal.
In fact, the legislation itself specifies that the money would be used to boost teacher pay to $47,500, “or to the maximum amount achievable based on the allocation.”
The pay increase for Escambia was a decent jump. Warren noted that the starting teacher salary was about $38,000, before the governor’s goal last year. Now the starting salary has been raised to $43,500 in Escambia.
A presentation given at a March State Board of Education meeting noted that the highest pay raises in the state came from school districts in Gilchrist (from $34,868 to $44,455), Okaloosa (from $34,988 to $44,300), Highlands ($35,000 to $44,200), and Lafayette ($38,389 to $47,500).
Even though those four districts received a pay increase of more than $9,000, only one — Lafayette — received the $47,500.
Other districts did get the $47,500 starting salary, including Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, and Orange school districts, in Florida’s urban areas.
“We did. We fought to get there, but we did,” said Wendy Doromal, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association.
Some even got more than the expected goal.
Valerie Wenrich, executive director of human resources for the Collier County School District, said in a written statement that: “Our current starting salary for teachers is $47,720, which is the second highest starting teacher salary in the state right behind Monroe County,”
But overall, only a handful of districts got to that $47,500 starting pay, according to teacher unions and administrators.
Some teachers in each county do make at least $47,500, but they are veterans and experienced teachers.
A human resources staffer from Clay County District Schools told the Phoenix that while the legislation boosted their starting salary from about $38,500 to $44,867, they “do have experienced teachers that are making that $47,500.”
Nicole Sipka with the Escambia teacher union reported that about 800 Escambia teachers had a salary of $47,500 or higher. She also noted that 1,700 Escambia teachers were making below DeSantis’s goal of $47,500 dollars.
“It caused a lot of heartburn for a lot of our veteran teachers who were looking at the fact that they were going to be making the same salary as someone who has just begin their career,” Warren, of the Escambia union, said.
Andrew Spar, president of the statewide teacher Florida Teacher Association, says that providing better pay to veteran teachers as well as boosting starting salaries would increase interest in the teaching profession.
“It certainly sets up this mindset that ‘I can get in making $47,500, but then I am not necessarily going to see pay raises going forward from there,'” Spar told the Phoenix. “Not very many people are going to go ‘okay that’s where I want to go work.'”
Future of teacher pay
Following a tumultuous fiscal year during the COVID-19 pandemic, DeSantis again wants to put money into increasing teacher pay.
According to January news release, DeSantis wants lawmakers to include $550 million in the 2021-22 budget, “to continue raising the minimum K-12 teacher salary to $47,500, as well as the salaries of other instructional personnel.”
Spar, with the FEA, would like to see veteran teachers and school personnel better prioritized in the new state budget for 2021-22.
“We like the idea that we are designating certain funds to pay increases,” Spar said. “But again, to do it effectively you have to have enough there that you can really lift everyone up.”