Sarasota County teachers are paid more than in Manatee. Would higher taxes help close the gap?

The School District of Manatee County is one of the largest employers in Manatee, with about 7,000 teachers, principals, cafeteria workers, janitors, bus drivers and other positions.

The average teacher salary in Manatee County is $45,778.45, according to the Florida Department of Education. Statewide, the average teacher salary is higher: $47,858.26. In Sarasota schools, that average is substantially higher, at $54,524.52 — the third-highest county average in the state.

For example, a fifth-grade teacher in Manatee County earns between $38,278 and $69,417. In Sarasota County, fifth-grade teachers earn up to $80,630, according to the salary databases compiled by the Bradenton Herald.

The gap started when the Manatee school district chose to cut employee salary schedules in 2008 by 1 percent, then again by 2.75 percent in 2011, contends Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association.

“So that was the start of how we started losing ground on other districts,” Barber said. “It’s very complicated to come back (from that).”

The school board is working with Manatee County commissioners to hold a special election asking voters to OK a one-mill increase in the tax rate.

The new revenue would go partially toward teachers’ salaries, school board chairman Charlie Kennedy said.

According to the proposed referendum funding allocation sheet, 51 percent of the anticipated $33 million would be used toward MEA teachers salaries, with another 5 percent going to MEA paraprofessionals and another 5 percent to American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.

Some of the funds for teacher’s salaries, Kennedy said, would go toward the additional labor for adding an extra half-hour to the school day, while the rest would be for raises.

The allocation sheet also shows a proposed 15.5 percent of the funds going to STEM and career technology and adult education programs.

The remainder of the funds would be divided between hourly non-bargaining employees, school administrators, SAMP (supervisory, administrative, managerial and professional) employees and charter schools.

The cost of the special election, for which the School District of Manatee County is paying, is $300,000. The election will be held in March as to not confuse it with the three school board races in August, Kennedy told the Board of Manatee County Commissioners Tuesday.

Should the tax increase be approved, the changed millage rate would be reflected in residents’ TRIM notices.

Officials plan a two-pronged approach to educating voters on the proposed millage increase, looking at the increase in teacher salaries as well as the extended school day for students.

“It will be just as important to focus on the student part of this, because the extended school day is for the kids for more instructional time. Which isn’t necessarily a raise for teachers because they’re working an extra half-hour. But it is more money in their pockets and it will also help students,” Kennedy said.

The Manatee school district currently has 40 teacher openings. Several veteran teachers have left the district to work in neighboring counties such as Sarasota because of more competitive salaries.

Barber is still concerned that, even with the proposed millage increase, employees are not a priority to the district, saying it shows in their lower salaries and what has caused the gap.

“It’s not just one thing, it’s multiple things. But it just boils down to making the employees who deliver the service to the students a priority when you consider your budget,” Barber said. “We want to support the referendum, but we need assurances and we need to be assured that the priority will be salaries and not once again programs and other things. That they’ll put the people in the system first.”

Sara Nealeigh: 941-745-7081, @saranealeigh