Teacher Salaries a Victim of Budget Cuts

By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida
By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida

Tallahassee, FL -- August 30, 2011 --

Stephanie Rothman has done the math. On her roughly $48,000 a year salary, the 15-year high school English teacher in Broward County barely gets by.

In the last year, Rothman has had to abandon a Boca Raton home she could no longer afford, moving into a room at a friend's house and feels "cynical and hopeless" about her financial prospects.

"I love teaching, I was born to teach," Rothman said. "But I feel there is no way I can sustain a living with just teaching. So that is why I decided to become a certified personal trainer and get a part-time job."

Rothman is one of hundreds of thousands of teachers in Florida that have gone years without a significant raise.

On average, school districts have raised the minimum pay for a teacher by 1 percent in the last four years, according to newly released data by the Florida Department of Education. And less than half of all school districts have given raises at all, with most districts keeping salaries flat over the last four years.

As a consequence of years of state cuts to education and dwindling property tax values, most school districts say they cannot afford to give raises to teachers, instead focusing on preventing layoffs or school closures.

Lawmakers say the lack of raises is the product of a severe economic downturn.

"Obviously, none of us are pleased with any decline in salary or any failure of teachers to get raises," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, who helped write the education budget. "We are not satisfied with that, but at the same time, we have to realize this has been a very brutal economic time for most, if not all, Floridians."

In the last four years, the average pay of a Florida teacher has decreased $1,199, from $46,922 in the 2007-2008 school year to $45,723 in the 2010-2011 school year, a decline of about 2.5 percent.

In Broward County, an exodus of experienced teachers and salary schedule changes have actually caused the average teacher pay to fall by 16 percent in the last four years to $42,181 the largest drop in any county.

"Morale is at an all-time low," said Pat Santeramo, the president of the Broward Teacher's Union. "Weve seen people exiting the ranks of teachers in Broward County whether it's at the top or bottom. They have basically given up."

Salary woes have led many in the profession to get second jobs, leave teaching, retire, or move to a state in which teachers are paid more. In Georgia, for instance, the average teacher salary for the 2009-2010 school year was $53,155, over $7,000 more than what the average teacher earns in Florida.

"We are professionals, but we are held to high standards that our pay does not match," said Lisa Dos Santos, a world history teacher at Forest Glen Middle School in Broward County. "Many of us have lost a house or gone bankrupt, and I speak from personal experience."

As a single parent, Dos Santos said surviving on a teacher's salary in South Florida is almost impossible. "You certainly can't support a family or even yourself on just one teacher's salary," she said.

As a result, Dos Santos has kept a second job as a waitress throughout most of her 15-year teaching career.

Andy Ford, the head of the statewide teacher's union, the Florida Education Association, placed the blame for the decline in teacher salaries at the feet of the Florida Legislature.

"It's just a general lack of commitment on the state's part for funding," Ford said. "We have not been investing in public education for the last few years and now we are in a downward spiral."

Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, disputes the notion that lawmakers are to blame.

"Teacher salaries and raises are set by the local governing body," Coley said. "We don't set salaries. Certainly, the budget shortfalls we have experienced at the state level has directly impacted local budgets."

Coley said her "heart goes out" to teachers in areas like South Florida, where the cost of living is much higher. "I know it is a tough time," she said. "Unfortunately, it is a reflection of the economy as a whole."

Teacher salaries are set by each district, usually after negotiations with the local teacher's union. In Florida, Taylor County offers the lowest starting teacher salary at $30,000, and Monroe County the high-cost Florida Keys - offers the highest possible salary of $80,184 to experienced teachers with a doctorate degree.

Compounding the frustration over no raises, teachers are also wary of upcoming changes to how they are paid. First, there is the newly required 3 percent contribution to Florida Retirement System for their pensions or investment accounts. Also going into effect this year is the beginning stages of a new merit pay system.

The familiar salary schedules that disclose how much a teacher earns depending on experience and whether they have a bachelor's, master's or doctorate degree is about to be phased out.

New teachers instead will have their salaries tied to how well students do on standardized tests, and districts are not allowed to use advanced degrees, except when in relevant subject areas, to boost pay.

"It's really created a lot of heartburn," Santeramo said, with teachers questioning how outside factors such as student attendance, background, and familiarity with English will be taken into consideration.

Lawmakers say their goal for next year is to keep funding for education stable, rather than having to cut as deeply as this year, when lawmakers approved a budget that slashed school funding by 8 percent on a per-student basis.

"I'm optimistic," Coley said. "We made such deep cuts this past session that we will be able to avoid those cuts in the coming session. We don't have the numbers, but hopefully it looks a little better."


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