TALLAHASSEE -- With Florida expecting its first budget surplus in six years, Gov. Rick Scott wants to spend a chunk of it on higher pay for teachers — a proposal some see as more of Scott’s newfound support for public schools.
Scott will unveil his proposal Wednesday, including his recommended amount of the raises, when he visits Ocoee Middle School near Orlando in the hub of the Interstate 4 corridor, which is pivotal in statewide elections.
“It’s good for teachers, it’s good for students, and it’s good for the state,” Scott said Tuesday.
But skeptics see a governor hobbled by low popularity numbers in campaign mode, trying to prove he’s an ally of public education.
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“Tell him to send the money, but no one is fooled by this,” said Karen Aronowitz, president of the 22,000-member United Teachers of Dade in Miami. “He’s just restoring money that was already stolen from teachers. He can campaign all he wants.”
Average teacher salaries in Florida are among the lowest in the country, at about $46,000 a year, lagging about $10,000 behind the national average.
While the money may be welcome, teachers might not be as quick to embrace Scott. Many teachers remain angry at him for cutting $1.3 billion to schools from his first budget, for signing a teacher-evaluation law that he now says must be reworked, for backing a merit pay system tied to students’ standardized test scores, and for requiring teachers to contribute 3 percent of their pay to their pensions — a requirement upheld last week by the Florida Supreme Court.
Scott in recent months has gone on a listening tour at schools, proposed more professional teacher training and declared emphatically in interviews that “I like teachers.”
Pinellas County School Board member Janet Clark, a former middle school teacher, called Scott’s proposal “wonderful.”
“I’m not a big Rick Scott fan, but I’m glad he’s having some of these second thoughts on teachers and education,” Clark said. “I think he made a mistake at the beginning of his term.”
The statewide teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, has long been closely aligned with the Democratic Party. Union leaders strongly backed Scott’s Democratic opponent, Alex Sink, in 2010, and the union’s lawsuit against the 3 percent pension plan contribution led to last week’s Supreme Court ruling. (Scott had proposed that public employees contribute 5 percent).
Citing that 3 percent pension contribution, which amounted to a 3 percent pay cut, FEA President Andy Ford said: “A 3 percent raise would just put us back to zero.”
Still, Ford said, Scott would be the first governor since Democrat Bob Graham in the early 1980s to advocate higher salaries for Florida teachers. But the proposal isn’t as simple as it sounds.
Ford said teachers’ salaries are negotiated county by county, and while a budget directive from Scott and the Legislature will carry weight, county school boards will decide how to spend the money. It could also raise fairness questions if support personnel are not given raises, too.
“It could be complicated,” Ford said, noting that school districts have asked for up to $100 million to beef up security on campuses after the mass killings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. “He can provide the money and he can strongly urge them. But he can’t just rule that it will be done.”
Scott also wants to give $250 debit cards to all teachers to help defray their out-of-pocket costs for classroom items, which amount to an estimated $14 million statewide.
The governor will release his detailed budget recommendations next week, a step that sets in motion more than two months of negotiations with the Florida House and Senate. The Legislature writes the state budget, but the governor can veto individual items.
It will be the first time in years that the Legislature has additional money to spend. Chief state economist Amy Baker has told legislators that the state could have a surplus of up to $437 million next year as the state’s economy shakes off the effects of the recession.
Scott and lawmakers will face a multitude of competing demands from groups seeking a slice of that money, from state universities to health programs.
Scott, who spent more than $70 million of his own money and won the 2010 governor’s race with 49 percent of the vote, remains an unpopular leader, according to recent public opinion polls. A Quinnipiac University survey last month showed that a majority of Scott’s fellow Republicans (53 percent) said they hope he faces a GOP challenge in 2014.
Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat who is considering challenging Scott, endeared himself to many teachers in 2010 when he vetoed a merit-pay plan that was unpopular with many teaching professionals.