Hernando teachers losing automatic raises

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BROOKSVILLE – The state Legislature’s decision to implement performance pay scales statewide for Florida teachers will remove automatic step-increase raises from Hernando County educators’ contracts starting next year, district officials say.

Florida long has mandated school districts base teacher evaluations on student performance on standardized tests, which subsequently affects teacher pay, although there wasn’t much teeth to those laws in prior years, said Laurie Pellito, human resources coordinator for Hernando’s school district.

Depending on the county and district, as much as half the measure of a teacher’s effectiveness previously was based on subjective evaluations by school administrators.

But the Student Success Act of 2010 changed that, and with more recent legislation requiring all districts to fully implement performance pay salary schedules for the 2014-15 school year, teachers soon will be evaluated and paid based on statewide tests with no leverage from administrative evaluations.

Loss of automatic step-increases next year due to state-mandated performance pay schedules did not surface as an issue during early stages of teacher raise negotiations between the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association and the school district.

The district offered teachers union members a pay raise in addition to funding provided by the state before the winter holiday, for example, if teachers agreed to remove automatic annual raises from their contracts.

At the time, HCTA President Jo Ann Hartge said the teachers union would not consider sacrificing a benefit like automatic step-increases, which teachers unions in other Tampa districts such as Pasco and Pinellas do not enjoy.

“Of course we didn’t (want to give up automatic step), but statute supersedes contract,” Hartge said. “We’re trying to be in control of our own destiny here. It’s just really tough. The Legislature handed us something really hard to do.”

This year alone, more than $1.8 million in automatic step increases were added to HCTA members’ payrolls.

Hartge said she has delivered a summary of the upcoming changes to teachers’ union members, but has not received any responses regarding the removal of automatic step.

“Not a word,” she said.

Teachers like Tom Brown, a math teacher at Nature Coast Technical High, say the removal of automatic step, which he considers more of a cost of living increase than a pay raise, is deeply unfair.

That sentiment comes especially to the forefront with President Barack Obama last week campaigning to ensure better accountability for private sector workers who work overtime without pay.

Teachers know all about working overtime with no pay, Brown said; it’s more the rule than the exception.

“Automatic step I always thought of that as a cost of living increase,” he said. “Everywhere in government, they give automatic pay increases based on cost of living, so how is that any different?”

One option for the HCTA is to incorporate into its ongoing contract with the school district over teacher raises an automatic step increase for the performance pay model, called “Automatic Movement.”

According to state law, the new salary schedules will be based upon a combination of student performance and professional practices, and have comparable performance evaluation standards throughout the state.

The details may vary district to district, and there might be some wiggle room in the contract to guarantee an effective teacher an “effective” or “highly effective” rating, district officials say.

That overall rating, with a performance pay salary schedule, will influence how much a teacher is paid.

Hernando’s school district remains among the last in Florida to finalize teacher raise agreements, which average about $2,000 per teacher based on the terms of a tentative agreement between the two bargaining teams.

With those raises occurring at about the same time as a statewide revision in salary schedules, Brown said he sees the raises as a legislative attempt to buy into giving teachers a pay cut.

“Our bargaining power is limited because we are not by law allowed to strike,” he said. “I feel handcuffed throughout the whole process.”

The situation also makes him feel something like a contestant on the game show “Let’s Make a Deal,” Brown said, and has him asking: Should I get rid of what I have for what’s behind curtain number one?

“I think they need to define performance pay better. Are they going to pay less, or more?” Brown said. “The whole model is, ‘Take a guess. Trust us.’ That doesn’t work out so well.”

The teacher raise agreement between HCTA and the district will be decided by vote during the week of March 24, Hartge said, and the school board will consider ratifying the agreement at its April 1 meeting.