Orange teachers push for bigger raises as school board laments state budget cuts

Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | September 23, 2021

The Orange County teachers union was “shocked and saddened” when the county school district offered $175 raises to most teachers this year.

Convinced Orange County Public Schools could afford far more, union leaders pressed for a better package last week at both the Orange County School Board meetings and during an impasse hearing before a special magistrate.

Dennis Campagna, the special magistrate who heard the case, likely will not make a recommendation on how to resolve the pay dispute until the end of October, at the earliest, and whatever hedecides will not be binding.

Under Florida law, school boards have thefinal say. They also start the process by setting a tentative budget and the parameters for salary negotiations.

Members of the Orange school board, which approved its $2.3 billion operating budget last week, agreed teachers deserved better pay but operated on the advice of district administrators who said there is no money available this year to significantly boost salaries.

The state, which allocates the bulk of the school district’s operating budget, cut funding this year, leaving Orange County Public Schools to educate more students than last year with less money. Also, the new state law that aims to boost starting teacher pay to $47,500 means little leftover to hike salaries of more-experienced instructors, they said. That was a problem when the law took effect in 2020 and remains so this year.

“It’s not a pretty picture in the state of Florida right now,” said Chair Teresa Jacobs, as the Orange County School Board adopted its 2021-22 operating budget.

Still, the district offered teachers up to $3,500 in bonuses and supplements, one-time payments that represent an “enormous commitment” to teachers, even if only for the year, said John Palmerini, a school board attorney, during the impasse hearing.

“This is still money that will go into their pockets. It is still money they will be able to pay bills with,” he said.

But union leaders and plenty of teachers did not see it that way, arguing it is hard to build long-term financial security on a one-year payment.

And the district’s salary offer was insulting, they said. It started with a $25 cost-of-living increase for all teachers while providing a $100 raise for those rated “effective” and $150 for those rated “highly effective,” as most OCPS teachers are.

“Why would a district not reward employees for their heroic work during a pandemic?” said Wendy Doromal, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, telling the school board she was “shocked and saddened” by its offer.

The union declared an impasse in July after three bargaining sessions, convinced negotiations were at a standstill.

The Lake, Osceola and Seminole county school districts also reported state funding was down this year as they recently approved their budgets. Neither Lake or Seminole has started salary negotiations with their teachers’ unions but negotiations are underwayin Osceola. The district has proposed raises of $800 to $1,150. The teachers union wants 5% hikes — or $2,500 for those earning $50,000 — for teachers who did not get a large pay boost last year.

Lare Allen, president of the Osceola County Education Association, said the school district has far more in its reserves fund than it needs and could use some of that money to give bigger teacher raises.

Union leaders and teachers in Orange made the same argument.

“I urge you not to adopt the budget as it is written,” teacher Ashleigh Pfriem told the school board. “Find respectable raises for your educators.”

But district leaders say the raises the union wants — about $3,000 for most teachers — would cost $60 million and completely drain the portion of the district’s rainy day fund that can be used for salaries. Then there would be no money to continue them in the coming years.

“It’s a math issue,” said Jim Preusser, the district’s top negotiator. “It’s not sustainable.”

The district also works to keep more than the “bare minimum” in its reserve fund to help it get a good bond rating when it borrows money to build new schools, a yearly occurrence in the growing county, Palmerini said.

The other problem is that the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis in this year’s budget cut funding for class-size reduction (a loss of $25 million for Orange) and required school districts to pay more into the state retirement system (a cost of about $8.4 million), among other changes, budget officials said.

The school district also expects to educate about 4,000 more students this year than last.

The state’s 2020 law that aimed to hike starting teacher pay to $47,500 meant big raises for teachers who were earning far less but very little for those already over that threshold. This year, the state’s funding to maintain those higher salaries fell short, meaning Orange must chip in about $3.5 million.

The district prioritized teacher raises in the years before the new law passed, Jacobs noted during last week’s board meeting.

“I sympathize and empathize with teachers who feel completely disrespected,” she said, but added the union was “blaming the board for something the state has to fix.”

All eight board members lobbied in Tallahassee for better funding last spring but their efforts did not succeed, she added.

“I know as a teacher, a former teacher, how hard it is to make ends meet on the salaries we offer and I know what we did offer was for some insulting, said board member Karen Castor Dentel.

“We’re adopting the money that comes in,” she said. “Our hands are really tied.”

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