MANATEE -- It's rarely a surprise when a teacher leaves the Manatee County School District to head to a school in Sarasota County.
Crossing the county border -- a short drive -- can mean an extra $10,000 in annual salary.
The average teacher salary in the Sarasota County School District is $57,026, above the state average, according to the state database. The average teacher salary in Florida is $47,950, according to recent state numbers.
By most measures, including test scores and performance rankings, Manatee schools tend to fall a bit below the state average. That also holds true for average teacher salaries -- with a $47,387 average -- although the district is only a few hundred dollars off the state average.
The highest paid teachers are found in Monroe County -- south of Miami and including the Florida Keys, where the cost of living is higher -- earning an average of $58,309, according to state figures.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the lowest average salaries are paid in Holmes County in the Panhandle on the Alabama border where teachers earn an average of $33,190.
"Teaching is one of the toughest jobs we have in society. It is unfortunate the profession is always under the microscope," said Diana Greene, Manatee County schools superintendent. "Our teachers deserve everything they're getting and more."
Key factors such as cost of living weigh into average salaries as do considerations such as proximity to universities, which give easier access to higher degrees. If school districts use general fund money for programs going above state mandates -- like "courtesy" bus stops or having buses pick up students who live close to schools -- those can drive down average teacher salaries since fewer dollars are available.
"All these things could have gone into salaries," said Jackie Sweat, a Florida Education Association bargaining specialist. "It's all much more political than people realize."
Two years ago -- preceding an election year -- extra state money was set aside specifically to go toward teacher raises.
"It was an acknowledgement that teachers are underpaid," Sweat said.
This year, the same allo
cation didn't happen.
Having underpaid teachers, along with the disparity among average teacher salaries, can lead to instability in district workforces, Sweat said, prompting teachers to find other options.
In Manatee, Greene said she hoped the district would continue a two-year trend of increasing teacher salaries after it had to cut salaries in 2007-08 and 2010-11. Teacher pay is not yet back up to the former salaries, said Pat Barber, head of the Manatee Education Association.
"We have not yet made up any ground in our pay yet," she said.
Barber said her goal is to have competitive teacher salaries. Contracts each summer are normally negotiated retroactive to July 1, the start of the school district fiscal year.
On the other end of the spectrum, Sarasota never falls below fourth place in having the state's highest average teacher salary.
"That's mostly due to the cost of living," said Sarasota County School District Deputy Chief Financial Officer Al Weidner. "That's something that doesn't show up when you look at the average salaries."
Personnel costs are the biggest expense for any school district. More than 80 percent of total spending is on salaries and benefits -- and often a sticking point between those who think teachers are paid too much and those who think teachers aren't paid enough. Talking about salaries is often seen as taboo although taxpayer-funded salaries are public information.
State salary averages are a simple average -- the number of teachers divided by teacher salary costs, according to state officials. Salary numbers are reported to the state by the districts.
How a teacher is paid is much more complicated. Degrees, special certifications, number of years as a teacher and number of years in the district all factor into individual pay and are colloquially called "steps." Whether teachers move up a step each year is part of the annual contract negotiation until they hit a maximum.
Two years ago, the state appropriated money to give teacher raises as a one-time deal for districts, which now must find the money to keep it up.
This year in the special legislative session, the state approved bonus money for teachers based on how well they did on their own SAT or ACT test scores before they entered college. Greene said she's all for teachers taking advantage of opportunities to earn more money, but she questions the research behind that move.
"So much focus is on a test score and there's so much more to teaching than test scores," she said.
The state has also pushed districts into a performance pay-based model for teachers, which gives bonuses for having students perform well on state tests and for being rated highly. Some Manatee teachers were grandfathered in on the old pay-scale, but all new teachers are automatically put on the performance pay scale, which hasn't been fully rolled out yet because the state evaluation tool to measure performance hasn't been finalized.
The starting salary in Manatee County for a fresh-out-of-college, bachelor's degree-toting teacher is $38,000. Teacher pay in the county tops out at $85,100. The average teacher in Manatee County has been an educator for about 12 years, according to state data, just above the state average for experience.
"For most of our teachers, it's not about the money," Greene said. "But if we are able to increase our salary and make it higher than the state average, we are going to try to do that."
Other average salaries in Florida, according to state data:
Superintendent, $142,990. Diana Greene earns an annual salary of $180,000.
High school principal, $96,363. In Manatee County, the average high school principal salary is $108,920.
Middle school principal, $91,748. In Manatee County, the average middle school principal salary is $79,317.
Elementary school principal, $88,776. In Manatee County, the average elementary school principal salary is $84,268.
School board member, $32,261. In Manatee County, the average school board salary is $36,681.
Manatee County teachers and employees have received raises the last two years.
For 2014-15, teachers and paraprofessionals got a 2 percent increase. Not every teacher and paraprofessional received the 2 percent raise. The lowest possible annual increase for a teacher is $544, and the lowest possible increase for paraprofessionals is $400, according to the district and MEA officials.
Bus drivers and those covered under the support employee union also got a 2 percent raise in 2014-15.
Contract negotiations are beginning for the 2015-16 fiscal year, which began July 1. Any raises will be retroactive.
Voters in Sarasota County have continuously supported funding an additional 1 mill on local taxes to help pay for 30 more instructional minutes in the school day. The additional mill brings in an extra $48 million to the district for the 2015-16 fiscal year, Weidner said. Since the school day is longer, teachers are paid more, he said.
Because of the high average salary, teachers tend to stay on the job longer, Weidner said. Teachers in Manatee and Sarasota have nearly the same number of years experience, according to the state database, which may also make it easier for teachers to cross the border.
Teachers in Sarasota County tend to have more professional degrees and certificates, which also command higher salaries.
"Morale is good with staff here," Weidner said.
Salary disparities between bordering districts can cause those with lower salary averages to lose talented teachers to their neighbors, Sweat said.
In Tallahassee, where she lives, the local school district has to worry about losing teachers to Georgia because of salary incentives.
"If it's a $10,000 difference, a teacher may decide it's worth the commute," Sweat said.
When told the differences between average salaries in Manatee and Sarasota County, Sweat said if Manatee teachers are leaving for Sarasota they will probably be replaced with newer, less expensive teachers.
"I do think teacher pay makes a difference in your stability," she said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.