Legislature 2013 | EDUCATION

Florida Legislature looks to speed release of school employee raises

dsmiley@MiamiHerald.comApril 30, 2013 

Florida lawmakers are looking to speed up the release of $480 million in school employee raises one day after the House and Senate negotiated a budget that proposed delaying them until June 2014.

On Tuesday, amid pushback from South Florida and regional schools officials, both House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz said they expect to create flexibility by changing a conforming bill that makes the budget align with state law.

“The date is a challenge and something we believe needs to be rectified in the conforming bill,” said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Legislators will not vote on the $74.5 billion budget until Thursday, so lawmakers have until then to tweak the timetable. If that happens, it would be to the satisfaction of South Florida’s schools superintendents, who criticized parts of the state’s education funding plan during a news conference Tuesday.

It might also appease Gov. Rick Scott.

“The Legislature’s agreement on pay raises for teachers is not what we recommended,” Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers wrote in a statement Tuesday. “Our budget proposed an immediate raise.”

Scott’s proposal also called for $2,500 raises for all teachers. But the Legislature tied those raises to performance evaluations.

The budget that landed on lawmakers’ desks Monday proposed giving minimum $2,500 raises to “effective” teachers and up to $3,500 raises to “highly effective” teachers, as determined under evaluations by local school districts and approved by the state Board of Education. It also made guidance counselors, principals and other instructors eligible.

Releasing the $480 million 14 months from now was supposed to give districts time to negotiate evaluations with their unions, said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, chairman of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee. But lawmakers hedged Tuesday.

“As far as I’m concerned, teachers who earn their increases in pay ought to be able to get them as soon as school districts develop a plan to do so, collectively bargain the plan with their unions, and submit their plan to the commissioner of education,” said Gaetz, a former schools superintendent.

That might allay one concern from Miami-Dade and Broward’s superintendents, who said they were “appalled” at the Legislature’s changes Monday to teachers’ raises and working with the Dade delegation to fix things. But they are also concerned that lawmakers are stretching the $480 million too thin.

“We have significant concerns about the distribution of the dollars and how far the dollars will in fact go,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said of the raises. “It is clear to us that once you divide the total amount of dollars by the number of teachers in the state of Florida — and we’ve done that for Miami-Dade — it falls woefully short of the promise of $2,500.”

He said offering $3,500 for “highly effective” teachers and adding non-teachers makes the problem worse.

Fresen argued that districts control who gets the raises. While most Florida teachers were rated effective or highly effective this year, he wrote that “we provided $480 million for districts to provide much-deserved salary increases to whom they determine meet their criteria of effective.”

Fresen also said the districts have seen large funding boosts in a budget that increases K-12 funding by $1 billion statewide: $134 million for Miami-Dade and $93 million for Broward.

Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie, however, said earmarks from the state tied up most the new money. And when coupled with increased costs for pensions and healthcare, they would leave Broward schools with a general fund deficit.

“This is an interesting game, as I see it, that’s being played,” Runcie said, and called on Scott to veto the Legislature’s conforming bill. “In some ways, I kind of liken it to a shell game.”

Herald/Times staff writers Kathleen McGrory and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

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