Guest Commentary: Raises for teachers was complicated issue

OKEECHOBEE — My name is Jill Clericuzio Holcomb, and I am an Okeechobee County School Board member. I would like to clarify the vote denying a raise for school employees that took place on April 9, 2018. This was a difficult decision that was not based on whether teachers and support staff deserve a raise, but whether the Okeechobee County School District can afford one this year. Here is a summary of the details.

Each year, the Okeechobee County School District negotiates workplace conditions, including salary, with the Okeechobee County Education Association, known to many as the Teachers’ Union. These negotiations include two groups of school employees. These groups are instructional, which includes teachers, and classified, which is comprised of support staff, such as custodians, bookkeepers, paraprofessionals, and many others. This year the Union declared impasse, meaning they were not able to reach an agreement with the District.

Following required state statutes, prior to the impasse hearing, a special magistrate evaluated the proposed offer from the District and from the Union. The magistrate’s recommendation was not to give a raise. The next step in the process was to bring the offers before the Okeechobee County School Board at a Legislative Impasse Hearing. When this occurs, the School Board must act as an impartial party, hear both sides of the issues, and then make a decision.

After listening to presentations from both sides, and hearing the decision of the special magistrate, a difficult decision was made. The School Board voted 3-1, with one abstention, to deny the raise asked for by the Union for Instructional Employees, and a vote of 4-1 was made to deny the raise for Classified Employees.

Though hard for some to understand, the vote of the board is only part of the story. In an effort to correct the rampant misinformation spreading through our schools and community, here are some additional facts that will provide more details and context for the decision:

The vote that came before the school board was for a raise in addition to an already agreed upon bonus. Each instructional and classified employee was already set to receive a $500 bonus this year.

In addition to the $500 bonus, teachers were also given a performance bonus based on their evaluations. All classroom teachers received either an additional $800 or $1,200, depending on whether they were effective or highly effective. In this program called “The Best and the Brightest,” the State provides the district with money to pay for this $800 and $1,200 for classroom teachers only. The District matched this bonus for all remaining instructional employees who aren’t in a classroom. This matched money did not come from the State, but from the District budget. In all, over $400,000 was paid out to employees as a bonus this year from District money. This brought the total bonus for effective teachers to $1,300 and $1,700 for highly effective teachers. Although most school districts deducted the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare from the State-provided bonus money, Okeechobee County School District did not. In an effort to provide employees with as much of their bonus money as possible, the District paid the Social Security and Medicare on all of the bonus money, regardless of its origin.

The raise was denied because the District would have had to use the fund balance to pay for it and sustain it. The fund balance is similar to a savings account for the District. The amount of money in the fund balance varies each year, but it is to be used for one-time withdrawals only, not recurring costs, such as a raise. If the raise had been granted, then the money would have come out of the fund balance each year, until it was depleted. Spending non-recurring dollars on recurring costs is irresponsible and does not represent best fiscal practices.

The fund balance is decreasing each year. At the end of this year, the fund balance is estimated to be 6.5% of the revenue generated for the year. The Okeechobee County School District has a policy that the fund balance cannot drop below 5%. This is to ensure that our finances are stable and healthy. Once the fund balance dips below 3%, the District must notify the Department of Education. Once the fund balance reaches 2%, the State declares a financial emergency and will appoint a financial emergency board to investigate. At this point, the State steps in and takes over all finances for the school district. This is why it is so important not to continually deplete the fund balance with recurring costs.

The Parkland shooting took place less than two months before the vote. While funding will be provided next year for School Resource Officers and mental health programs, only a maximum of $250,000 can be expected to harden our schools. A list of security upgrades totaling $1 million was put together by school officials for Okeechobee County schools. Any additional money available in the budget should be spent to ensure the safety of our students and staff.

The school system does not have taxing authority. I have heard it said that the District should raise taxes to generate money for our teachers and schools. The Florida Legislature dictates the millage rate for Florida schools.

Superintendent Kenworthy did not receive a raise this year, and has not had a raise in seven years. Florida superintendents are either elected or appointed. Okeechobee appoints, while many small towns elect. If elected, the Florida Legislature would set the superintendent’s salary, as it does with all elected officials. Mr. Kenworthy makes $8,000 less than if he were elected.

School Board Members did not give themselves a raise. We do not have the authority to give ourselves a raise or set our salaries. As elected officials, our salary is set by the Florida Legislature and based on a specific formula. I have also heard that board members make more than teachers. This is not true. Teachers in Okeechobee County start at $39,000, and school board members earn substantially less than that.

Teachers have one of the hardest and most important jobs on the planet. We trust them with our most precious resources, our children. They have taken on the role of parents, police, counselors, and mentors, when all they ever wanted to do was teach. I have two children, both in the Okeechobee County School System, and I would not send them to school each day without being absolutely sure they were receiving a wonderful education by caring professionals. Looking their teachers in the eye, along with many of my own former teachers, and denying them a raise was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I am a former high school teacher, and my mother and father both retired from the Okeechobee County School System. Education is in my blood.

My vote against the raise was not a vote against teachers and support staff, but rather a necessary vote for fiscal responsibility. As a constitutional officer, I am beholden to taxpayers and community members to ensure that student programs are not cut and payroll is made. My job is to preserve a future for students and members of this community. Changes will be taking place in this district to better align our revenues and expenses. A more transparent way of budgeting is already in place, in which vacancies are no longer budgeted for and large overages are no longer the norm. Teachers are asked to do more with less each year, and so is the District.

Like the safety and security mandates that were passed this year, Florida Legislators continually approve programs and policies but do not provide adequate funding to enact these programs with fidelity. This causes the school budget to be stretched tighter every year. Next year, the school system will receive only an additional $0.47 per student. I ask you to contact your legislators and urge them to make education a priority so we can pay our employees what they deserve. Working together, we can make a difference, and put our students first.

Thank you for your time.

Jill Clericuzio Holcomb
School Board Member, District 5
jill.holcomb@okee.k12.fl.us

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