Hillsborough County teachers warn teacher shortage could grow worse as a pay dispute continues

Austin Maheu, a middle school teacher in Hillsborough County, addresses the school board about working conditions, pay on Dec. 13, 2022.

As Hillsborough County public schools report hundreds of instructional vacancies, teachers are appealing the school board, amid a staffing shortage they warn could grow worse in the months to come if concerns about pay and working conditions aren’t adequately addressed.

The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association (HCTA), representing thousands of school staff in Hillsborough County, is asking the district to agree to salaries that fully account for employees’ years of service, and to meaningfully address working conditions that teachers describe as “unsustainable.”

“I have had multiple nervous breakdowns because I can’t meet the demands of the job,” one local teacher, who did not provide their name, told school board members Tuesday night. “How do I give my kids the attention that they deserve, the quality education they deserve, the feedback they deserve when more demands are coming, and there’s not enough time to meet them?”

The Hillsborough County school district, one of the largest in the country, is currently short over 500 instructional staff. Several teachers reported a loss in planning time and untenable working conditions, as they’re tasked with doing more with wages they say aren’t sufficient to make ends meet.

For months, the teachers union has been at impasse with the district, largely over a pay dispute against the backdrop of rising rents and an inflation rate that exceeds the national average.

As a result of a pause during the pandemic, Hillsborough County’s public school teachers are two steps behind on their salary schedule, leaving some instructional staff short hundreds, or even thousands of dollars in pay.

In an effort to increase pressure on the district, about 40 HCTA members and supporters packed the school board meeting Tuesday night, as they have for months, wearing red, pro-union t-shirts. They share their personal stories and those of colleagues who didn’t have the time to attend.

“We cannot survive, and that is why we keep losing teachers,” said Austin Maheu, a music teacher at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview. “The band director of my school, who has a concert this week, has covered every day since last Monday during his planning period, and has no time to get ready for his concert tonight — which is why he’s not here.”

Emily Griest, a teacher at Riverview High School, shared the story of one of her colleagues, a single mom who loves her job, but is struggling to keep her head above water. “She told me just this week that she’s afraid for her children because her landlord recently raised her rent to $2,000 a month just for a roof over her head. Her monthly salary is about $3,000,” said Griest, a union representative at her school who’s tasked with regularly checking in with her colleagues.

Emily Griest, a local teacher, shares a story of a local colleague facing financial hardship at a Hillsborough County school board meeting on Dec. 14, 2022.

“Due to the lack of steps that we’ve had for our last two years, she and her family have had to move every single year just to be able to afford to keep a roof over her head, to escape the rising rent and inflation in the Hillsborough County,” said Griest.

The teachers union and the school district have been at an impasse since August — meaning, they’ve been unable to come to an agreement themselves, and have called for a third party through Florida’s Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) to intervene.

The district has offered a single step on the pay scale, plus a one-time, non-recurring supplemental payment that’s equal to a second step. But the union says that isn’t good enough — and it won’t stop teachers from leaving for something that pays more, and demands less. They’re asking for the district to pay staff for their full years of service. And they dispute the district’s argument that they lack the money to do this.

Last week, a special magistrate from PERC heard arguments from both parties, and received information about the district’s financial situation to determine what’s feasible for the district economically.

School district attorney Jeff Gibson argued the union “is vastly oversimplifying these issues” of whether the district can afford to pay teachers for their full years of service, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Jessica Vaughn, a member of the Hillsborough County school board, admitted the issue is complicated. While the district has received additional funds in COVID-19 relief from the state, they’ve been given clear instructions on how exactly that can be spent. Otherwise, the state could take that money back.

“The issue is, even if that helped build up our reserves, the money that we have in savings, it doesn’t, it’s not a reoccurring fee,” Vaughn told WMNF. By that logic, guaranteeing a reoccurring amount of money to teachers using a lump sum isn’t sustainable, per the district.

But Vaughn, a board member and former substitute teacher who received the union’s endorsement, said she’s been trying to find ways to find the money to pay school employees the steps they’re owed. “I have personally voted no on several items that have come out of our general fund that are reoccurring…I believe we should be prioritizing paying our staff a livable wage.”

But pay is just part of the problem. Many teachers on Tuesday shared feeling overworked, riddled with anxiety and depression as they spend additional hours laboring to support their students’ education, as well as the livelihoods of themselves and their families.

Florida teachers have also faced partisan attacks from Republican politicians and conservative ‘parental rights’ groups on on their abilities as educators, in an additional hit to morale. Nationwide, schools are reporting a rise in disruptive student behavior since the pandemic began. And the state of students’ mental health, over the pandemic’s period of uncertainty, isolation, and loss, has spiraled into what the U.S. Surgeon General has described as a crisis.

The Hillsborough County teacher who did not identify themselves during public comment said they’ve reluctantly been looking for work outside of the profession. “And it breaks my heart, because I love my kids,” they said.

Between tears, they shared that the current demands of the job, including the extra time it takes just to ensure compliance with Florida’s new education laws, is unsustainable.

A local teacher tells the Hillsborough County school board she’s considering leaving the profession, despite love for the job, on Dec. 13, 2022.

“Every single teacher I know wants to leave. Every. Single. One,” they said. “Some feel stuck because they retire soon. Some feel stuck because they have no other way of making money, and they don’t have the time to dedicate to find another job. Some feel forced out because they can no longer afford to live on their salary.”

Maheu, the middle school music teacher, said he cares deeply for his students, and he’s trying to stay on the job, in order to provide them with consistency. He said students ask him constantly whether he’s going to stay, or leave like some of their other teachers have.

“Every time, I look them in the eyes and say, ‘I’m going to stay here, don’t worry. I’m going to stay,’ at least until you’re gone through the system. And I can live with a clear conscience,” said Maheu. “But I don’t know if I can do that. I don’t know if I can come back next year under these conditions.”

He can’t afford to save for retirement, he says, or afford to save to have kids with his wife — who also teaches. Addressing the school board, Maheu said, “There are things that you could do right now that would make a major noticeable difference in the lives of everyone in this room.”

The school board has the authority to uphold or deny the special magistrate’s decision on the impasse between HCTA and Hillsborough County Schools. And the union expects that decision will come around mid-February.

But, the union told WMNF that the school district could also decide to go back to the bargaining table and to provide the union with what they’ve asked for at any time.

“We are ‘on hold’ only to the extent that the district remains unwilling to pay employees for the experience they’ve gained over the last two years,” said Graham Picklesimer, HCTA’s executive director, over email.

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