Gov. Rick Scott wants to add $2,500 to each Florida public school teacher's salary next year — another turnaround on schools for Scott that Treasure Coast education officials called positive, even if it's politically motivated.
Scott announced Wednesday he'll propose adding $480 million for across-the-board teacher raises next year. During the announcement at Ocoee Middle School near Orlando, Scott said he couldn't think of a better investment for the state.
Scott's suggestion, which would take advantage of the first state budget surplus in six years, would offer St. Lucie teachers their first raise since 2007. Indian River teachers received step raises — incremental raises built into a salary schedule based on experience — three years ago, said Denise Roberts, executive director of Human Resources. Martin's 2011-12 contract includes a step raise at a cost of $370,000 for the last nine weeks of the 2011-12 school year and $1.8 million in 2012-13.
Scott will propose raises and an increase in per-student school funding in the budget proposal he'll release next week. The governor's budget is just a guideline for the state Legislature, which will craft the state budget in its March-through-May session.
The raises still would have to go through collective bargaining at the county level, but the money could go only to teacher pay increases, said Vernon Pickup-Crawford, a lobbyist for Treasure Coast and other schools. Scott said the raises include related benefits.
Scott also stressed the pay bumps would be across the board. They would not be affected by a new merit pay law that awards teachers based on students' standardized test performances. The 2011 bill, SB 736, was the first Scott signed as governor.
"I believe in merit pay, I believe in measurement," Scott told reporters Wednesday. "I believe in accountability. We're going to continue to work on that. But right now, the right thing to do is an across-the-board pay raise for all full-time teachers."
The announcement comes a week after the Florida Supreme Court upheld a 2011 state push to make Florida's public employees, including teachers, contribute 3 percent of their salary to their pensions. The average Florida teacher makes $10,000 less a year than the national teacher average, according to the Florida Education Association.
Scott, who has been plagued by dismal approval ratings, signed off on a $1.3 billion chop to schools in his first budget. He changed his tune by adding about $1 billion to schools last year, which didn't cover the previous year's cuts.
Pam Kessler, president of the Martin County Education Association, called the proposal "fantastic, as long as the money is earmarked for teacher raises and not just given to the school districts to do with what they want."
Martin County teacher salaries range from $37,000 a year for teachers straight out of college with a bachelor's degree to $58,000 for those with bachelor's degrees and 24 or more years of experience, Kessler said.
Before the 2011-12 and 2012-13 increases, Kessler said teachers had gone four years without a raise. Kessler added that Scott's proposal "absolutely is a political move, but we'll still take it."
"So, yeah, dangle $2,500 in front of us, and we're biting," she said.
Indian River County School District, currently in negotiations with teachers on this year's contract, also applauded Scott's priorities.
"It's always nice if we can give money to teachers," Roberts said of Scott's proposal. "Anytime we can give raises or money to teachers, that's always a good thing."
In Indian River, salaries range from $35,500 for a new teacher with no experience to $57,100, plus benefits. Teachers also earn supplements for advanced degrees. The district's average teacher salary is $45,653 plus benefits.
St. Lucie teachers have received a few one-time bonuses over the years. And last week, the district and union reached a tentative agreement over the compensation piece of the 2012-2013 contract with help of a federal mediator. As part of that agreement, teachers will receive $6.4 million in bonuses after the contract is ratified by teachers and voted on by the School Board.
St. Lucie Schools Superintendent Michael Lannon said he was thrilled that the governor spoke "in such glowing terms education and the direct ties to Florida's future."
"The key will be to get the Legislature to fund the Governor's plan without a long list of restrictions so that decisions are truly local in how to carry out the Governor's intent to honor our professional educators," Lannon said.
Vicki Rodriguez, vice president of the St. Lucie Classroom Teachers Association and Classified Unit, said she was happy Scott was "starting to realize that
"However, they took 3 percent from us last year so we're actually going to be starting at zero," Rodriguez said of the required pension contribution. "So while it's a nice thing to have, it's also not enough to give back all that they've taken away. It's a start."
Whether it'll be an across the board or merit-based raise could be a tough legislative fight. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told The Miami Herald he's supportive of pay based on performance.
Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican in charge of the Senate budget, echoed Weatherford. He added that lawmakers will need to cut elsewhere to make the raises happen, since Florida has to balance its budget.
"I want to financially reward high-performing, excellent teachers," Negron said. "I would want our local school districts to have the capacity to make evaluations based on rewarding teachers who do an excellent job."
-Staff writers Colleen Wixon, Kelly Tyko and Tyler Treadway contributed to this report.