Hundreds of public school teachers gathered at a recent school board meeting to demand higher pay.
Protesting teachers and supporters surrounded the Hillsborough district school board meeting off of Kennedy Avenue in downtown Tampa. Most of the crowd was dressed in matching blue Hillsborough County Teacher’s Association shirts. Many held signs reading ‘fair pay for fair work’ and ‘honor the contract.’
The messages on their signs referenced the school board’s recent decision to not pay the $4,000 a year wage increase promised to qualified teachers in their contracts.
“I’ve been teaching here for three years and have seen an increase to my salary of only $200,” said Britney Wegman, a teacher at Riverhills Elementary in Temple Terrace and rally organizer. “This is the year to get an increase and they’re telling me that there is no money. I’m here to stand up for other teachers in this position, I’m here to stand up for other school workers, who are, a lot of them, not making a living wage.”
Many Hillsborough teachers will be “working the contract” for the week after Thanksgiving, which means they will only work the hours that are required of them in their contract.
“It’s essentially showing the kind of work teachers do after class and before class, and what kind of impact that will have,” Wegman said.
The school board said the money for the raise isn’t there. Hillsborough Superintendent Jeff Eakins read from a prepared statement inside the school board meeting, “A lot of you are saying, ‘Just find the money for more raises somewhere.’ I hear you,” Eakins said. “Here’s the issue: we’re not starting from a healthy, balanced budget. We’ve been starting way behind, every year, for several years.”
According to Eakins and the school board, state funding isn’t keeping up with Hillsborough County school growth. Twenty years ago, the district had to add new schools and buildings due to growth and to comply with the class-size amendment. They didn’t receive any state funding to help with the effort.
“That means right now we owe a billion dollars from new construction 20 years ago and we have a billion dollars in deferred maintenance,” Eakins said.
The school board maintains that the funding is not available because of funding decisions made at the state level. On the same day the protest took place in Tampa, Governor Rick Scott proposed a major increase to school funding for 2018. Earlier this year, Scott signed HB 7069, which directs more tax money to go to charter schools.
According to data from the Florida Department of Education, the average teacher salary in Hillsborough is $49,910.
Along with teachers, students showed up at the school board meeting in support of their teachers. The week before the board meeting, students began walking out of class in protest of the school board’s decision.
“I’m here to support my teachers who dedicate their lives and are completely devoted to my education. They deserve a lot better from our school district,” said Graham Shelor, a student at Blake High School who showed up to protest with teachers. “And it’s not only them, students, staff, everyone under our public school system is very much affected by this.”