With Gov. Ron DeSantis pushing for a raise in starting teacher pay this Session, a House panel heard testimony Thursday from a group of superintendents lobbying for that increase.
Earlier this month, DeSantis put forward a $603 million package to bump starting teacher salaries in the state to $47,500. The House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee began assessing whether the bump is needed during its Thursday hearing.
Jackson County Superintendent Larry Moore said the pay bump would be more than welcome.
“Beginning teacher salary in Jackson County is just a little over $34,000,” Moore said, noting the potential difference should the Governor’s plan go through.
Osceola County Superintendent Debra Pace elaborated on the benefit of a pay bump when it comes to recruitment.
“Teacher recruitment and retention, as well as recruitment and retention of high-quality school leaders, is the most significant challenge that I see facing local school boards and local school superintendents,” Pace said.
Before the 2019-20 school year, Pace was tasked with finding cuts in operational costs to up teacher salaries. She argued the increase would help break that cycle of cutting costs elsewhere.
“It ended up that we made some really good reductions, but these are not easy decisions to make,” Pace told the Subcommittee.
“And it’s important for the Chair and members of the committee to understand that our school board, the superintendent and members of our team have been engaging in this kind of a continuous process of identifying and implementing ways to reduce operational costs and demonstrate fiscal responsibility to our taxpayers since I became the superintendent in 2016.”
And the benefit would be felt by the majority of teachers under Pace’s control.
“In Osceola County, should we raise all of our salaries to a minimum of $47,500, 64 percent of our teachers would earn a raise,” she said.
That number is identical in St. Johns County, according to Superintendent Tim Forson. Forson says the county just pushed its starting teacher salary to $39,000 this year.
“It had been $38,000 in starting pay for the last 12 years,” Forson said. “This is the first year we negotiated a $1,000 move forward in starting pay.”
He also explained how his county’s layout presents unique problems for bringing in new teachers.
“We are disproportionately residential. We absolutely are light industry, some farming in the South and Western part of the county,” Forson explained.
“I say that because it creates a new challenge to teachers as you’re hiring teachers, and that is there’s not a lot of affordable housing in St. Johns County, not a lot of rental housing, for someone who comes in right out of college and is making that starting teacher rate.”
Sarasota County Superintendent Todd Bowden represented the largest county on hand Thursday. Teachers there earn a starting salary of $44,300, according to Bowden.
“We found that 902 of our instructional personnel do not currently earn the figure [of $47,500]. That’s about 31 percent of our teachers,” Bowden said.
But Bowden also outlined one hurdle of the Governor’s plan to raise starting salaries: what happens to experienced teachers who may earn less than $47,500?
To wit, Bowden described the cost of various potential teacher pay bumps within his county.
Moving the starting salary from $44,300 to $47,500 would cost $1.8 million. But giving that $3,200 pay bump to all teachers would cost nearly $10.8 million.
On a percent basis, the proposed bump is a 7.2 percent increase in pay. Applying that percentage increase to all teachers would cost about $14.6 million.
How to navigate the various pathways will be up to the Legislature as lawmakers further review the proposal.
Indeed, House Speaker José Oliva signaled some hesitation upon hearing the Governor’s initial proposal.
“I am in receipt of the Governor’s statement regarding teacher compensation as I am of the over $2B of new spending requests from his agencies,” Oliva said.
“The legislative process will properly vet these among all other state concerns. My initial thought is one of gratitude for those who came before us and saw it fit to bind us and all future legislatures to a balanced budget,” Oliva added.
But Pace urged them to press forward.
“I do recognize the incredible task that you all have taken on,” Pace said. “The magnitude of this work is incredible but it is such important work to do.”