TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott, who just two years ago signed off on a large cut to school funding, now wants to give every full-time schoolteacher in the state a $2,500 pay raise.
Scott announced the proposal Wednesday surrounded by teachers at Ocoee Middle School, just outside of Orlando. He said his proposed budget for 2013 will include $480 million to support the raises for full-time K-12 teachers, plus the cost of related expenses.
This raise would not include new funds for support staff, but Scott said there will be additional money for them in his upcoming budget.
“We had to make tough choices to get our economy back on track,” Scott said. “When the economy comes back, we can invest more.”
“I think it sends a signal to teachers that we value what they do in the state of Florida,” said Richter, who added that he would like to know if seniority or merit would be a factor in how much teachers would receive.
“Anything that rewards our hardworking teachers, I think is a good thing,” Rodrigues said.
Scott’s newfound devotion to teacher pay raises comes even though the governor previously signed off on instituting merit pay for teachers and requiring them and other public employees to start paying part of their pension costs.
In his first year in office the Republican governor approved a budget that cut school spending by $1.3 billion. The Legislature last year approved Scott’s request to increase public school funding by $1 billion but left it to local school boards to determine how much, if any, would go to pay raises.
Leaders of local teachers unions were skeptical of the raises and the likelihood that they’ll come through.
Jonathan Tuttle, executive director of the Collier County Education Association, said the state’s track record of cutting taxes for corporations while educators are left “screaming in the wings” has led to that feeling. That comment was echoed by Mark Castellano, president of the Teachers Association of Lee County.
The two said teachers in Florida are paid significantly below the national average. That has “fallen on deaf ears” for so long that “it’s hard to get terribly excited” about Scott’s proposal, Tuttle said. They also said the raises should not be limited to classroom teachers.
Scott made his announcement at a time when he is battling low poll numbers and confronting a possible challenge from former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2014. Crist earned high marks from the state’s teachers when he vetoed the merit pay bill that Scott later signed.
The pay raise, even if enacted, won’t be a complete windfall for the state’s roughly 168,000 teachers. The Florida Supreme Court last week upheld a Scott-proposed law requiring a 3 percent pension contribution out of the salaries of teachers, state and county employees and some municipal workers.
It means a teacher who earns $40,000 a year would see $1,200 taken from his or her paycheck annually to pay into the pension.
Both Richter and Rodrigues mentioned the ruling as having paved the way for Scott’s proposal for teacher raises.
“We know we have some stability in the budget, and I think that’s leading toward prioritizing things that are important and clearly our teachers are important,” Rodrigues said.
The improving economy could help increase support for teacher pay increases, Richter said.
“The economic cruise ship, if you will, is making a turn,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s back to shore, but it’s heading back there.”
Castellano called the governor’s proposal a political maneuver to appease those upset by the pension law he supports.
“Congratulations, governor, on your attempt to be re-elected,” Castellano said.
He also questioned whether any strings would be attached and whether school districts, already cash-strapped and facing several unfunded mandates, would choose to spend the money on raises for teachers.
Still, Castellano and Tuttle said the move is a step in the right direction.
“It’s encouraging to see this starting point of the governor’s,” Tuttle said. “We’ll see what happens with it.”
Collier schools Superintendent Kamela Patton said the district is excited about Scott’s proposal, especially because it appears that it would be “above and beyond” what he already suggested for his allocation for education.
She said she is waiting to hear whether the raises would be funded on a one-time or recurring basis.
“We would break our bank doing that on our own for every year,” Patton said.
Florida Education Association President Andy Ford also was encouraged by Scott’s proposal, but said it’s important to get a full picture of the salary situation for Florida’s school employees.
“A $2,500 increase in pay would certainly be welcome, but it’s important to put it in its proper context,” Ford said in statement. “Teachers and other school workers lost 3 percent of their salary in 2011 and saw another 2 percent disappear when Social Security and Medicare tax breaks expired earlier this month.
“But this is a step in the right direction because investing in public schools and the people who work in them is the way to create the workforce of the future.”