TAMPA -- Gov. Rick Scott unveiled a plan Wednesday he said would give Florida's public school teachers a $2,500 pay raise.
The governor said it would cost $480 million to secure the raises for each of the state's 168,000 full-time teachers.
"Florida teachers are the heart of the success of Florida students," the governor said while announcing the plan at Ocoee Middle School near Orlando. "I can think of no better investment for our state than investing in those teachers who work on the front line of Florida's future every day by teaching our children."
But teachers and school board members in the Tampa area and across the state said they are skeptical the money will actually end up in the pockets of those in classrooms.
Some called the move nothing more than a public relations stunt by a governor who wants to improve his approval ratings as he nears a re-election campaign. Others say that teachers still will be way behind their counterparts in other states who make about $10,000 more a year than Florida teachers.
"I really think this is a ploy on our governor's part to try to bring up his dismal approval rating," said April Griffin, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board. "We've seen our governor's agenda for the past four years, so pardon us if we are a tad bit skeptical.
"It has not been public-school friendly."
Scott, who is calling for an increase in education spending this year, slashed $1 billion from the state's education budget his first year in office. He has scheduled a visit in Tampa today at a local elementary school to talk with teachers.
Faye Cook is an elementary school teacher who has been in the classroom for more than two decades. Currently a fifth-grade teacher at Wilson Elementary in Plant City, Cook welcomed Scott's news on Wednesday.
"I am glad to see it," she said. "I don't think it can hurt to start the conversation because we are very low on the totem pole nationwide when it comes to salary. It makes you feel like you are not being paid what you are worth."
Much has to happen before the money ends up in teachers' pockets, Cook pointed out. The Florida Legislature has to approve the budget and districts have to include the money in the teacher contract negotiations they conduct, she said.
"It doesn't mean it comes true three months from now," she said. "I don't count my chickens before they are hatched."
Statewide, teachers have been working for years with little or no pay raises. They also have been forced to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to their pension, a move they were unhappy with and challenged unsuccessfully in court.
"We have had stagnant wages; we haven't been getting raises; we had that 3 percent taken away," said John Perry, who has taught in Hillsborough County for 17 years and is currently at Bryan Elementary in Plant City. "It's nice that he wants us to have a pay raise, but he could have saved a lot of time and effort by not taking that 3 percent in the first place."
Griffin, the school board chairwoman, wishes the raises would extend beyond teachers.
"I also believe the rest of our school employees are very hard-working and contribute to the child's overall education experience," she said. "As happy as I am to see teachers get what they deserve, I think the conversation needs to be all-encompassing."
Reginald Rhett, front office manager at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo, couldn't agree more.
Rhett was curious how Scott's plan would affect school-support staff, who he said struggle just as much, if not more, than teachers to make their paychecks last.
There are some who wonder whether the state will have enough money to live up to Scott's plan. Senate President Don Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County schools superintendent, said he prefers an approach of providing more funding to local school boards, which would then make decisions about pay increases.
When told of its expected cost, Gaetz acknowledged that it could be challenging to find the money. He said it could involve making tradeoffs in deciding how to spend state funds, because "$480 million is a lot of money."
"It's more money than some people think we'll have," said Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville in the Panhandle.
Candy Olson, another school board member from Hillsborough, hopes the plan comes to fruition.
"Our teachers are underpaid. You can never pay our teachers enough for what they do," she said. "I'll take money from pretty much any source. If it's because the governor is reading his polls, that's fine.
"Florida has always been cheap and proud of it." ___
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