Schools superintendent: DeSantis ‘misleading’ public about Florida teacher pay raises
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is misleading the public about what teacher salaries will look like in the fall, according to Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna.
In late June, DeSantis signed into law a bill that is designed to raise Florida teachers' minimum salaries to $47,500 and also would raise the salaries of veteran teachers.
Under the bill (HB 641), the state will allocate a total of $500 million to Florida's school districts and charter schools for starting teacher pay raises. Of this amount, $100 million will go to supplementing veteran teachers' salaries.
Lauded by the governor's office as a historic increase to public school teachers' salaries, the baseline salary would put Florida among the top five U.S. states for average starting teacher salaries, according to DeSantis.
But the Leon County school district superintendent disagrees: “He’s misleading people and teachers when he says they’re all going to start at $47,500," Hanna told the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida.
In the bill DeSantis signed, the language specifies the state will allocate funds to raise teacher salaries to $47,500 — or to the maximum amount achievable based on the specific school district's allocation.
“This pay bill, although it is $500 million, it is not what we advocated for," Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram told the Tallahassee Democrat. The FEA is Florida's largest teacher's union.
In January, thousands of Florida public school teachers marched through the streets of Tallahassee, demanding teacher salaries be a primary issue during the 2020 legislative session. DeSantis also declared 2020 would be the "year of the teacher."
But Ingram said DeSantis is "not being completely transparent" when he applauds his recent teachers' salary raise.
“(DeSantis) doesn’t talk about the caveat, that we did not give enough money to get to that benchmark. So there’s an ‘if and then’ statement there that has not been fulfilled," he said.
In Leon County, the district says it will receive roughly $5 million of the $500 million in statewide funds, which Hanna said won't get close to raising all local teachers' salaries to what DeSantis has promised.
Nor will it do much to help veteran teachers receive a substantial raise, he added.
“Although it’s a step in the right direction, it falls short of what (DeSantis is) proclaiming, that our teachers will be at ($47,500) at a minimum and that we’re No. 5 in the country," the Leon County superintendent said. "That’s not true."
Unpacking the raise
The issue, Hanna said, is that the state is not allocating each district enough for all its teachers, not to mention that the bill neglects other school staff such as counselors and media specialists.
“I’m disappointed in the governor," Hanna said in an interview with the Democrat. “(DeSantis) just didn’t commit enough money."
A spokesperson for DeSantis said the governor had proposed $600 million to raise the minimum salary for teachers to $47,500 and provide "a pay raise to over 100,000 Florida teachers."
"The Legislature ultimately appropriated $500 million, $400 million to raise minimum salaries and $100 million for additional pay raises for teachers and other instructional personnel. This will bring Florida to the top five for minimum compensation in the nation," Governor Press Secretary Cody McCloud wrote in an email.
"Now that the budget has been signed, the (Florida) Department of Education will work with the districts on the implementation of this historic compensation increase."
In Leon County, that compensation increase may look like a raise from the current $37,500 local minimum teacher salary to somewhere between $40,000 to $41,000, Hanna said.
"We’re going to stretch that money as far as we possibly can," Hanna said.
But the superintendent said he was "dumbfounded" at how the district would manage to pay for other aspects of local schooling given budgetary constraints predicted even before the pandemic.
He then added: "If (DeSantis) really wanted to get to ($47,500), then he should have thought twice about expanding the private school voucher program."
The newly-expanded voucher program would make nearly 29,000 more Florida public school students eligible to attend private schools.
The expanded program costs Florida taxpayers roughly $200 million, the Leon County superintendent says.
A number of other organizations, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Southern Poverty Law Center, also have threatened to challenge the scholarship program legally.
Instead of funding the private school voucher program, the state could have allocated that $200 million to actually raising teacher salaries throughout the state to a uniform minimum of $47,500, Hanna said.
But the governor's office says otherwise.
"Superintendent Hanna is either confused as to how the legislative budget process and the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) work or he is acting in bad faith," DeSantis' Press Secretary said in a separate email to the Democrat.
The FEFP is the Florida Legislature's funding formula for state K-12 school districts.
"I think it’s very important to point out that despite the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting one of the largest veto amounts in state history, Gov. DeSantis’ 2020-2021 state budget provides $500 million solely dedicated to raising teacher salaries in Florida," McCloud said.
"In regards to the school choice funding, expanding the program is projected to save the state money in the long-term and did not require any specific funding to be included in the budget, because those expenses are already accounted for in the FEFP."
On the topic of teacher salaries, McCloud reiterated that the teacher salary bill should benefit 51% of veteran teachers who should see a raise "to meet their district's new adjusted minimum salary."
He pointed to two school districts — Union County School District north of Gainesville and Glades County School District in South Florida — where more than two-thirds of veteran teachers will see a raise.
He added that nearly 89,000 veteran teachers in Florida should see a salary bump before school districts factor in the additional $100 million from the overall teacher salary package.
"The Governor has said time and time again that this is just the first step in elevating and celebrating Florida’s educators, and we look forward to continuing to celebrate great teachers in Florida," he said.
School districts calculate increases
In Indian River County on Florida's Treasure Coast, school district officials say the state's allocation will be $3 million, which officials project will be enough to raise all base salaries to the governor's stated minimum without cutting school programs.
Nearby St. Lucie County's public school district will receive a bit more than $7 million based on initial reports from the Florida education department.
The district noted that funding will be split with charter schools in the county.
"It is too early to provide any more detail," Chief Communications Officer Lydia Martin told a USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida reporter when asked about raising teachers' salaries.
The school district says it will be in contract negotiations with the local teacher's union and the outcome of those negotiations will determine what the local raise will be.
In Florida's westernmost Escambia County, district teachers will receive a roughly $5,000 increase, which will put the starting salary at about $43,000, Escambia County Schools Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said.
He said the district is still figuring out the exact amount and is trying to increase salaries as much as possible, but “we’re not going to be able to approach that $47,500 at all."
"I think the Legislature understood that," Thomas then added. He pointed to DeSantis' initial $900 million teacher pay package proposal in January which eventually was chiseled down to $400 million for base pay plus the $100 million for veteran teacher salaries.
Thomas said teachers between the starting salary and veteran salaries also will receive a small percentage pay increase from available funds.
Salaries are 'an unfinished product'
“I’m sure that there will be lots of districts in the state that won’t have a minimum salary of $47,500," Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, told the USA TODAY Network - Florida.
Montford also is the CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. A school in Leon County — William J. Montford, III Middle School — is named after him.
But despite the range in salaries, Montford said the increase reflects a step forward in Florida's financial commitment to teachers.
"I think what we don’t need to lose sight of is that we as a state are finally recognizing the importance of salaries in attracting and retaining top-flight people in education," he said.
“And it’s true that most teachers, they go into the teaching profession not to get rich. We know that. But we also have to recognize that in order to attract and retain the best and brightest in the education field, we have to recognize the importance of a good, reasonable salary."
Montford said some districts throughout Florida — such as Monroe County, which covers the Florida Keys — already had teacher salaries close to or at $47,500.
DeSantis' bill would do little for those counties, but would have a greater impact on more rural counties, such as Liberty County, Montford said.
Teachers' salaries, which are negotiated between the school district and teachers' unions, are also based somewhat on county cost of living.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but I promise you: It’s going to be a good challenge to have," Montford said of districts figuring out their local pay increases. "We’re ready to do it.”
FEA President Ingram said he believes the pay increase represents a "multi-year approach" to increasing teacher salaries in the state.
“There’s going to be a high expectation that we revisit this," he said. “We think it’s a valiant attempt to fix that part of teacher salaries, but there are other parts of teacher salaries that were not touched in this bill."
Leon County's local teacher's union president, Scott Mazur, echoed Ingram's assessment.
“We understand that the minimum teacher salary (increase) is a step in the right direction, but it does not address everybody that is a part of the instructional bargaining unit," he said, listing off deans, school psychologists, media specialists and others.
“Although it looks good on paper, the impact doesn’t necessarily address the shortage in funding public schools have had in order to recruit and retain the best possible staff."
Previously, the Leon County school district was preparing to be saddled with at least a $3 million bill to cover the cost of expanded employer contributions to teacher retirement pensions.
Local school officials have said the money to cover this single specific increase will likely come in the form of cuts to certain school programs and other district budgetary constraints.
In addition, Mazur added, teachers are being asked to return to what he called "COVID-classrooms" in the fall as schools reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.
He said he feared an already pronounced teacher shortage in Florida will only worsen in the coming months and year.
Ana Ceballos of the News Service of Florida and Sommer Brugal of TCPalm contributed.
CD Davidson-Hiers is an education reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat. Contact her at 850-631-0958, or CDavidsonH@Tallahassee.com. On Twitter: @DavidsonHiers.
This story originally published to tallahassee.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.