FEA’s ‘Fund Our Future’ bus tour visits OHS

OKEECHOBEE — Members of the Florida Education Association (FEA) visited Okeechobee High School Nov. 13. The stop was scheduled as part of FEA’s “Fund Our Future” campaign, a statewide, five-week bus tour promoting public education in Florida. FEA Treasurer Carole Gauronskas and Vice President Andrew Spar made the trip to OHS to speak about the issues facing public education in Florida such as funding, overtesting of students and class sizes.

Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion
Florida Education Association (FEA) Vice President Andrew Spar speaks to students at Okeechobee High School on Nov. 13 while Okeechobee County Education Association President Jorje Botello (back left) and FEA Treasurer Carole Gauronskas (back right) listen.

The bus tour is also attempting to gather momentum for a rally FEA plans to hold on Jan 13 next year in Tallahassee, the day before the Florida legislature’s 2020 legislative session. “It doesn’t matter if you have a ‘R’ or a ‘D’ following your name on your voter registration,” said Mrs. Gauronskas. “As an educator, we all want the same thing, full resources for our kids to be successful, and compensation for all educators in our public schools.” “Voting matters,” continued Mrs. Gauronskas. “You have to be educated about what is on the ballot, who is on the ballot and what you want. What do you see for yourself next year, or five years and ten years down the road.”

Mrs. Gauronskas and Mr. Spar spoke to OHS students in the lecture hall to hear their concerns and ask what they improvements they would make to the public school system. Some common complaints were raised by the students in attendance, such as the need for a new high school in Okeechobee and the high number of tests. Students also voiced their support of the school’s CTE programs.

“A lot of the ability to offer programs like that is driven by funding,” said Mr. Spar. “Whether or not the school district can get the teachers for those programs or whether they can afford the materials they need. And a lot of those funding decisions are made in Washington and Tallahassee.”

The FEA has called for higher pay for teachers in Florida. According to the National Education Association’s annual report on teacher salaries, Florida currently has the 46th lowest average teacher salary in the United States. This despite Florida’s economy ranking as the fourth highest in the country according to data gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion
Okeechobee County Education Association president Jorje Botello speaks to Okeechobee High School students on Nov. 13.

The FEA say that schools in the state started the 2019-2020 school year with more than 3,500 teacher vacancies. Meaning more than 300,000 students started the school year without a full-time, certified teacher in the classroom.

For years Florida lawmakers have attempted to lure teachers to the state with a series of bonus programs. In 2006 then Governor Jeb Bush rolled out the ‘Effectiveness Compensation’ program, which tied teacher’s salary bonuses directly to standardized states. In 2007 that program was tweaked and rebranded as the ‘Special Teachers Are Rewarded’ (STAR) program. Instead of solely tying a teacher’s bonus to students performance on the FCAT, the program also relied on principal evaluations and student learning gains.

It took only a year for STAR to be scrapped and be replaced by a new incentive plan called the ‘Merit Award Program’(MAP), which was a modified version of the STAR program that gave a little more control over the performance plans to school districts. MAP ran until 2012 and didn’t have a successor until the Best and Brightest program was signed into law in 2015.

A day after FEA’s visit to Okeechobee, Governor Ron DeSantis visited Vero Beach High School to announce his replacement for the Best and Brightest program, the “Florida Classroom Teacher and Florida School Principal Bonus Program.”

Under Gov. DeSantis’ proposal schools would be placed into three tiers based on their performance. Schools would be placed in tier one if they earn 85 percent or greater of the total possible points or gain six or more points in their A-F school grading calculation, in tier two if they gain three to five points in their A-F school grading calculation or tier three if they gain one to two points in their A-F school grading calculation. Teachers at Title I schools in tier one would receive a bonus of up to $7,500, teachers at schools in tier two would receive a bonus of up to $3,500 and teachers in schools at tier three would receive a bonus of up to $500.

Teachers at non-Title I schools would receive bonuses of up to $3,700, $1,750 and $500 based on their respective tier.

“This legislative session and in my forthcoming recommended budget, I am proposing $300 million in teacher and principal bonuses that reward Florida’s educators,” said Governor DeSantis in his press conference at Vero Beach. “We want to make sure we are doing all that we can to recruit and retain great educators throughout the state of Florida. Together, we can advance this and other proposals as we strive to make 2020 the Year of the Teacher.”

The president of FEA, Fedrick Ingram, expressed his association’s disappointment with the proposal shortly after the governor’s announcement.

“Educators don’t want another bonus scheme, especially not one built on the back of a flawed school grading system,” said Mr. Ingram. “Bonuses don’t help you qualify for a mortgage; they can’t be counted on from year to year. We know that all too well here in Florida where adjusting the current bonus plan is almost an annual event. Teachers and all school employees should be paid fair, competitive salaries.”

Mr. Ingram also pointed out that the program leaves out many other school employees, such as pre-K teachers, librarians, nurses, teacher’s aides, bus drivers, custodians, office personnel and food service staff.

The announcement of the new bonus program comes a month after Gov. DeSantis announced a proposal to increase the minimum salary for teachers across the state to $47,500.

“We are experiencing a teacher shortage in Florida,” said Governor DeSantis at the Oct. 7 announcement. “With a strong economy and plenty of jobs available in other fields, unfortunately too many college graduates are unwilling to enter the teaching profession. My proposal to increase the minimum salary for teachers to $47,500 will help alleviate this shortage and elevate the teaching profession to the level of appreciation it deserves.”

The Okeechobee County School Board recently approved a teacher exchange program to help with the teacher shortage in the school district. Under an agreement with TPG Cultral Exchange LLC, teachers from India, Jamaica, the Philippines, Spain among other places will be brought into the country on a J-1 visa and given a three-year contract with the school district.

The school district has been able to fill six of their 23 teacher vacancies with the teacher exchange program. Currently the school district is hosting four exchange teachers from Pakistan and two from India.

“Funding is what we all vote for when we go into the ballot box,” said Mrs. Gauronskas. “When you walk in there and you ask yourself what’s important to your community and it has to be public schools. School board members are non-partisan for a reason. Because it doesn’t matter if they’re a Republican or Democrat, their number one job is to protect students. They are fighting hard for funding. Unless Tallahassee funds our schools, students won’t even know what their missing.”

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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