In a peaceful protest for higher salaries, many St. Lucie County teachers are only working the hours required by their contract.
St. Lucie teachers have not received a pay increase since 2007. Hoping to send a message to St. Lucie school officials and the community that teachers deserve raises, many teachers are not coming in early, staying after hours, working through lunch and taking papers home to grade.
"There seems to be this misperception that teachers are supposed to spend their own money on treats for the classroom, that they're supposed to give up their weekends to take other people's children on trips at the expense of their own children and families," said Vicki Rodriguez, vice president of the St. Lucie Classroom Teachers Association and Classified Unit. "While we enjoy doing those things there has to be a point where you say, 'I can't continue to do that' and I think our folks have reached that point."
While teachers believe the district has the money to pay teachers more, district officials said they can't afford recurring salary increases.
"The only way you get money is to reduce people and the position of this school board for the last five years has been we don't want to lose people and the union has supported that," Superintendent Michael Lannon said. "The school board has to look at it just like a business decision. If we had any kind of assurance from state leadership that they valued educators, it would put most districts in Florida I think in a different perspective."
Lannon said he's received letters from both the teachers union and the district's other union, the Communications Workers of America, to return to traditional collective bargaining for negotiating salary and benefits.
Since 2003 when Lannon became superintendent here, the district has used less-contentious collaborative bargaining. With this type of bargaining, also called interest-based bargaining, instead of a union negotiating team and district team, both sides are joined as a common team.
"We think in almost all circumstances, a collaboration is better than a fallback to a point of law," Lannon said. "But when you reach disagreement around compensation issues, there are no laws that govern collaborative bargaining so you have to fall back to the legal side of the issue, which gives you a process and procedure that you move forward to try to get to some point of resolution. But it doesn't give us any more resources."
Rodriguez said the district and teachers have been able to work through some difficult issues with the collaboration and that they hope to continue working together for issues not related to pay and benefits.
"Over the last five years, despite the fact that we've had stagnant wages and actually decreasing wages, more work, more hours, the success rate of students in St. Lucie County has increased. The only thing that's not rising is our stagnant wages," Rodriguez said. "I know the district has the money, it's just a question of how they prioritize."
Teachers are paid according to their education levels and their years of service — called steps — and the raises that come with those step increases are normally negotiated each year.
However, because of the economy and funding cuts, Tim Bargeron, the district's assistant superintendent for business services, said the last time teachers received a step was in July 2007 for the 2007-2008 school year.
During the May 8 St. Lucie County School Board meeting, Angela Dietrich, an eighth-grade science teacher at Dan McCarty School, told the board how the years of not moving up on the salary schedule have affected her.
"I'm in my eighth year of teaching and I'm earning step 3 pay," Dietrich said. "I drive a 12-year-old car. If I get a vacation, it's from tax refund money, it's not because I can afford to save for one. I have to withdraw from my retirement from a previous employer just to make my bills. It's getting to the point where I can't afford to be a teacher."
Teaching is Dietrich's second career after 19 years working for an insurance company and she says it's a job she finds very fulfilling.
"I didn't get into teaching to make a lot of money, I knew that wasn't in the plan but I did expect to make a living wage and put money aside to take care of myself in my old age," Dietrich said in an interview last week. "I honestly can't think of anything else that I would rather do. But when it comes down to a survival issue, a choice has to be made."
Dietrich told the board she had decided to "work to the contract" in hopes that the board will show employees the money. This means no after-school tutoring, parent conferences, dances and any activity for which teachers aren't paid and isn't outlined in the contract.
"I can't do what I want to do and that isn't right. In a county where we tell our students that they can do whatever they want to do, we're telling them not to be a teacher," Dietrich said. "I'm going to work to the contract