Gov. Rick Scott's proposal for a $2,500 raise for all teachers is a step in the right direction, local and state union leaders say, but more needs to be done to counter setbacks in recent years and bring salaries up to the national average.
The State Board of Education, which met in Orlando Monday, received a letter from Scott outlining his education budget proposal, which calls for a $2,500 raise for every teacher in the state.
Scott's proposed budget outlines a $480 million investment in educators and includes giving every teacher an additional $70 dollars — totaling $250 each — in supply funding to keep them from having to dip into their own pockets.
Highlands County Teachers Union President Steve Picklesimer said it sounds good, but the governor's budget is only a proposal of sorts given to the legislators to do with what they want.
"I see it as a political tool for the governor to buy some public opinion," he said. "If he cared about the teachers, he would give us back the 3 percent they took from our pension and then talk more money to make up for other shortfalls.
"We had a 2 percent reduction in pay beginning in the new year when we lost the payroll tax deduction."
So teacher pay in Florida is 5 percent lower this year (2013), Picklesimer said. Also, in Highlands County, teacher salaries have not gone up since 2007. During that time, there have been two years where teachers did not receive an experience step increase.
"Since 2007, the cost of living has gone up 6.64 percent and we have seen no increase in pay," he said. "Perhaps that is why Florida has dropped so low in comparison to all the other states."
"Teacher pay in Florida remains $10,000 below the national average," Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said, "and that's not competitive pay for a state that seeks to be a leader in economic development."
Ford said he was encouraged by Scott's proposal for a pay increase for teachers, but said it was important to get a full picture of the salary situation for Florida's school employees.
"A $2,500 increase in pay would certainly be welcome, but it's important to put it in its proper context," he said. "Teachers and other school workers lost 3 percent of their salary in 2011 and saw another 2 percent disappear when Social Security and Medicare tax breaks expired earlier this month.
The FEA will continue to push for a more stable source of funding for Florida public schools, Ford said.
"We're concerned that the state is returning to an old, failed model for budgeting that relies on growth and sales taxes," he said.
"This model led to a more severe economic downturn starting in 2008 and will lead to trouble at some point in time in the future when the economy suffers a downturn."
Highlands County School Board Chairman Andy Tuck, whose wife is a teacher, said Scott is a businessman who knows how to invest money in the right way.
"I look at it as we are making an investment in our teachers and raising the salaries so we can attract more talent for the state," he said. "I think it's a great thing."
Commenting on Facebook, Travis Cole of Lake Placid voiced his disapproval of Scott's proposal.
"I think its garbage," Cole said. "He is trying to buy them off for messing with their retirement."