Contracts linger as St. Lucie County teachers fight for better salaries and pay increases

Teachers have not had a raise since 2007

ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. - As teachers and the School District grapple over their 2012-13 contracts, the two sides still are at odds over most issues and can't even seem to agree on whether they've received raises in the past five years.

Although teachers insist they've received no salary increase, the district insists they are overlooking other forms of compensation, including bonuses and intact health benefits, amid neighboring districts cutting these items.

That has been a feat, the district said, considering school property tax collections are projected to be $67 million less than five years ago.

"We ... are spending about $8.5 million more in the benefits area than these other districts on average," St. Lucie County Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Tim Bargeron said at a Sept. 25 School Board meeting. "With limited resources, or similar resources, districts are spending their money in different ways and this is definitely a way it shows."

That St. Lucie spends money differently than other districts shows in their paychecks, too, teachers and union representatives argue. St. Lucie teachers have the lowest starting salary on the Treasure Coast. New teachers with a bachelor's degree make $35,356, compared to Indian River's $35,500 and Martin's $37,000.

Teachers are paid according to their education level and years of service, called steps, and the raises that come with those step increases typically are negotiated each year. St. Lucie's have been frozen since 2007, while Indian River County teachers are two steps behind and Martin County teachers are one to two steps behind.

"We are five steps behind," Lincoln Park Academy teacher Alan Mathison said during his presentation titled "Are St. Lucie Teachers Underpaid Compared to Other Counties?" at a Sept. 18 collective bargaining session. "We're right in the middle with all these other counties yet we're the ones that aren't getting the raises, we're not getting the steps."

St. Lucie teachers earn less than a new first-year Martin teacher until they reach Step 8, which pays $37,745, he said. To further illustrate the inequity, Mathison used himself as an example and cited the Florida Price

Level Index report, Florida Department of Education teacher salary data and other reports and research he compiled.

"I was hired in 2004-05 and this is my eighth year teaching and I have still not hit Indian River's minimum salary," he said. "Teachers hired in 2000 have not passed Martin County's minimum salary for bachelor's."

The difference between St. Lucie's Step 0 and Step 3 is $38 and the difference between Step 0 and 7 is $641, he said.

"This puts our county at a disadvantage for hiring and retaining," Mathison said. "Since St. Lucie teachers have been stuck at the same salary step for five years, plus salary increases are very small for the first six years, plus no raises, plus a low minimum salary, it has left us extremely far behind other counties."

Bargeron's Sept. 25 presentation defending the district was seen by some as a rebuttal to Mathison's Sept. 18 criticisms, and many teachers at the meeting, who wore red in solidarity, booed him.

School Board members told teachers they also were frustrated with the state and federal government for not funding education properly, but some still held out hope.

"We're all trying to find a different source, a sustainable source of money to support education," board Chairwoman Carol Hilson said. "If we do it, maybe we will take the lead in the state of Florida because other counties haven't been able to do it."

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