Local teachers prepare for rally in Tallahassee

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/FEA
Representatives from the Florida Education Association met with Okeechobee school district officials during their visit on Nov. 13. From left to right: FEA Treasurer Carole Gauronskas, FEA Vice President Andrew Spar, OCEA President Jorje Botello, Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services Dylan Tedders and OHS Principal Lauren Myers.

OKEECHOBEE — Members of the Okeechobee County Education Association (OCEA) make the trip to Tallahassee Monday, Jan. 13, to attend a rally for public education being held by the Florida Education Association. Educators attending the rally are hoping to make clear to state lawmakers the importance of investing in public education.

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.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledged that teacher pay in Florida has lagged behind other states and has called for a minimum teacher salary of $47,500. According to the National Education Association, currently the average teacher salary in Florida is just under $38,000 per year.

“We thank the governor for opening a dialogue on salaries and for acknowledging that our teachers are woefully underpaid,” said FEA President Fedrick Ingram following the announcement. “Raising minimum starting pay is a beginning. We still hope to hear about what Gov. DeSantis plans to do to retain experienced teachers who have devoted years to their students, and about how his administration will provide fair, competitive pay for all the people essential to our schools — bus drivers, paraprofessionals, food-service workers, office staff, custodial personnel and others.”

One sticking point between Gov. DeSantis and the FEA has been the announcement of a new bonus program to replace the current Best and Brightest program.

Under Gov. DeSantis’s new 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.

Florida legislators have attempted to lure teachers to the state with various bonus programs for well over a decade now. In 2006, then-Gov. Jeb Bush rolled out the “Effectiveness Compensation” program, which tied teacher’s salary bonuses directly to standardized tests. 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.

“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.”

Ahead of the planned rally, the FEA held a “Fund Our Future” bus tour that made more than 50 stops in more than 30 counties between Oct. 18 and Nov. 23 in 2019.

The tour made a stop at Okeechobee High School on Nov. 13, where FEA Treasurer Carole Gauronskas and Vice President Andrew Spar spoke to OHS students to hear their concerns and ask what they improvements they would make to the public school system.

“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.”

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 career and technical education 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.”

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