Pinellas teachers call for pay that keeps up with rising cost of living, amid teacher shortage

School lockers [Pixabay]

Just one week into the school year, Pinellas County Schools is short nearly 400 teachers and personnel, according to the local school district.

While Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is trying to recruit former cops, firefighters, veterans, and other first responders to fill the massive teacher shortage across the state, teachers in Tampa Bay say that district leaders and politicians need to focus on ways to keep the educators they already have — starting with a pay raise that keep up with the rising cost of living.

Leaders of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association (PCTA) walked out of negotiations with the school district last week, frustrated with the district’s 3.25% pay raise offer.

“We were insulted,” PCTA president Nancy Velardi said, in a video message posted online. “I was insulted for all of you, because the district offered exactly what they offered last year. Even though, for the past five months, I’ve been telling them this has to be different.”

In Pinellas County, the base salary for teachers is about $48,000 a year. According to the National Education Association, that’s higher than both the state and national averages. But data from the Florida Department of Education shows Pinellas’ average teacher salary of just under $52,000 lags behind the national average. Teachers say it’s not enough.

Philip Belcastro, an English teacher at St. Petersburg High School, told WMNF that he’s seen for himself how increased housing costs, without a pay raise to match, is pushing local teachers out of the profession and out of Pinellas County. “I actually want this job and want to be in this position here,” Castro told WMNF. But “they make it increasingly harder,” he said.

Philip Belcastro, a St. Petersburg High School teacher [Courtesy of Philip Belcastro]

Belcastro himself faced the prospect of displacement earlier this year. At the end of the last school year, his former landlord doubled his rent, from $1100 for a one-bedroom in the Old Northeast neighborhood to $2200 a month. This forced the 11th grade teacher of three years to scramble for a new, affordable place to live.

Shortly after turning to social media for help, the 35-year old teacher did find a new place to rent for $1350 — which he says is doable, for now.  But it’s still just over 20% more than what he had been paying just earlier this year. And on a $49,000 a year teacher’s salary, he’s not sure he’ll be able to stay and teach for Pinellas County Schools if the cost of living continues to climb.

Brennen Pickett, another teacher at St. Pete High, is also worried about his ability to continue teaching for Pinellas County Schools if the district can’t offer a better deal. “I can’t make it in this district with what I’m being paid,” the educator of six years told WMNF. “I’m trying to apply for a mortgage. I’m trying to start a family on my own. I also want to have children.”

Pickett’s wife is also a teacher, but works in Pasco County — where teacher pay is even lower on average.

To keep schools staffed and foster a consistent, stable environment for students, the Pinellas County teachers union is asking the school district for a 11.3% pay raise in teachers’ next contract, to help give educators the resources they need to stay in the profession and not get priced out of the area. They say their ask matches the county’s cost of living index increase over the past year – with Tampa Bay’s inflation rate in the double digits.

In response, the district’s lawyer Laurie Dart told the union last month they needed to “be realistic” — a comment Belcastro found insulting. “When we’re telling people to ‘be realistic,’ what are we telling teachers? What are we telling the fewer and fewer young people that even want this job?” Belcastro asked school board members during public comment at a recent board meeting.

“What am I supposed to tell my students when I can’t afford to be their teacher anymore?”

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Pinellas County Schools said they don’t have the estimated $65 million in funds that would be needed to meet the request of the union, which represents just over 7,000 educational staff.  All in all, the district says their total offer is equivalent to a 4.7% increase, which includes the addition of funds to cover increased healthcare costs and money from a property tax referendum passed in 2020.

To better meet the moment, however, union members are calling on the district to dip into their reserves. “If they cared about retention, they would raise the wages,” said Pickett. “They would offer us actual competitive wages — and they don’t.”

Brennen Pickett, a St. Petersburg High School teacher [Courtesy of Brennen Pickett]

The teachers union in Hillsborough County is also at an impasse with the district for the first time in five years, largely over pay. For the second year in a row, Hillsborough County Schools has offered teachers a one-time supplement instead of the traditional, permanent pay raises, citing a lack of funds. That’s a claim the union has called into question.

But pay isn’t the only factor behind the teacher shortage. As Politico reports, teacher education enrollment has declined over the past decade. The pandemic created additional responsibilities for teachers already overstretched.

And the politicization of Florida classrooms — with the state’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law and the ‘Stop WOKE Act’ prioritized by the state Republican Party during this last legislative session — is exacerbating teacher burnout and frustration.

“With the very blatant attacks on education and on marginalized communities, I just couldn’t teach anymore,” Anita Carlson, a former teacher for Polk County Public Schools, told The 19th in July, citing the two laws as a chief contributing factor to her resignation this year.

Teacher vacancies can also lead to unmanageably large class sizes, a problem Pickett and Belcastro said many of their coworkers are currently dealing with. In some cases, they said, teachers are seeing 35 to 40  students assigned to a classroom. “It’s really just hurting the kids, bottom line,”said Pickett. “I mean, I have stress dreams about it.”

When asked about the class size issue — a problem that should have been addressed by a state amendment passed by Florida voters in 2002 — a spokesperson for Pinellas County Schools told WMNF, “The district will continue to meet the requirements of the class size amendment by using school wide averages.”

The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association (PCTA) is asking members of the community — parents, students, faith leaders, and allies — to email school board members, and show up to board meetings to share why they support the PCTA and why they support a better raise for teachers. “We need people who are on our side at these meetings,” said Pickett.

“What these people in the district are doing is they’re just pushing the status quo from Tallahassee,” Pickett said. “We can be doing better. Pinellas County can be doing better. This used to be a shining beacon in Florida, and now we’re just fading away.”

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