I have learned by experience that difficult decisions are often unpopular. Some days I have to accept the fact that if 50 percent of the people support a decision, that is a good day.
I realize the March 20 referendum presents our community with a difficult decision. A one-mill tax is hard to swallow. However, it is important to understand the consequences of an impending crisis, which literally results in students without a qualified teacher in their classroom.
The realm of public education is becoming increasingly competitive. An article in the Washington Post last August carried the following headline: “Teacher shortages affecting every state as 2017-2018 school year begins.”
Not only are more teachers leaving the profession due to issues surrounding pay, evaluation methods and morale, but the number of students taking teacher education courses in college dropped 35 percent between 2009 and 2014.
The shortages and struggles outlined in that article are very real to what we are experiencing right now in Manatee County. As of this past Wednesday, we were working to fill 87 instructional vacancies. To help cover our shortage, we have to employ more long-term substitutes. Imagine being a student in a classroom with a parade of substitutes instead of a qualified teacher. In addition, we are finding it more difficult to find, hire and retain other types of employees, especially bus drivers.
How does all this relate to the referendum? If it passes on March 20, we can institute competitive pay for teachers and school-based staff next school year. Why are we conducting a special election rather than waiting until November? Because we are losing teachers now, and students are waiting longer at bus stops now. The cost of waiting another year is far more than the cost of a special election.
Voters in Pinellas and Sarasota counties have both approved additional millage for their communities. As a result, the average teacher pay in Manatee is $45,800, Pinellas $47,800, and Sarasota $54,500. The average principal pay in Manatee is $83,200, Pinellas $102,600 and Sarasota $103,900.
Pay increases from the referendum are targeted directly at teachers and other staff who work directly with students. It is not for myself, school board members or other district-level administrators.
In addition, priorities for referendum funding include adding a half-hour of instructional time each day and enhancing career education to produce a more highly-skilled workforce for Manatee County.
Sarasota already has the additional instructional time for their students. Over the course of a K-12 career, Sarasota students will receive a full year’s worth of additional instruction compared to students in Manatee County. This is grossly unfair to our students.
Our financial troubles are in the distant past. We have balanced the budget four straight years, we have a fund balance of $25 million, we have excellent audit reports and our credit ratings have been upgraded multiple times in the last three years.
Dr. Jim Hamilton, a respected consultant with the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, with decades of educational finance experience in Florida, described the School District of Manatee County’s financial return to stability as “remarkable.”
We are not a perfect school district. We make mistakes, we learn and we move forward. Just like we ask our students to do.
As Superintendent, I know a thing or two about hard decisions. This is not a hard decision for me. That is why I trust March 20 will be a good day.
Whether it is business, quality of life, or education – we must be able to compete with our neighboring counties. Manatee County’s future depends on it.
Dr. Diana Greene is Superintendent of the School District of Manatee County. To contact her, email Greened@manateeschools.net.