FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Department of Education is being sued over allegations it shortchanged teachers when it paid bonuses awarded by the Legislature, costing the state's best educators hundreds of dollars each.
The class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday in Tallahassee alleges that the department in 2018 illegally ordered school districts to subtract the employer's portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes from the amount given to teachers under the state's "Best and Brightest" program. Thousands rated "highly effective" and who met other criteria received bonuses of $6,000 or $1,200 during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. Teachers could receive both if they met all criteria.
The lawsuit, filed by the Morgan & Morgan law firm, says the state can't legally push its tax obligation onto teachers. Under federal law, the combined Social Security and Medicare tax of 13.85% is levied on up to $132,900 in annual income with half paid by the employee and half by the employer. On a $6,000 bonus, for example, that would be $831, usually with the employee and employer each paying $415.50.
The lawsuit alleges that the state illegally saved millions by having teachers pay the full amount.
Attorney Ryan Morgan compared it to a worker being told she would make $20 an hour but then learning she was only receiving $18 because the employer was illegally deducting its share of Social Security and Medicare taxes from her paycheck.
"The Department of Education, like any other private employer, has to follow what the law says," Morgan said.
The department had no immediate comment nor Gov. Ron DeSantis' office.
Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union, applauded the lawsuit, saying in a statement "that bonus schemes do not work" and that DeSantis and the Legislature should "commit to investing in educator salaries." Florida's average salary ranks 46th nationally, according to the union.
Chris Alianiello, a recently laid-off Orlando elementary school teacher, said he earned bonuses of $6,000 and $7,200, meaning the deductions cost him about $930 over the last two years. He said he worked 10 years in finance before becoming a teacher and knew the Social Security and Medicare taxes had to be split between the worker and the employer. That caused him to initiate the lawsuit.
"I initially wanted to get the money that is owed to me, but I also want to make sure that the tens or hundreds of thousands of teachers across Florida get their fair share," Alianiello said.
The bonuses have been controversial since first implemented in 2015. Top bonuses went to teachers who were rated "highly effective" and had scored in the top 20% on the SAT or ACT college entrance exams, even if that was decades earlier.
Critics said the test component was unfair as not all teachers took the SAT or ACT, particularly those who began higher education at a community college; had no bearing on classroom performance; and disproportionately affected minority teachers. The state is paying $15.5 million to settle an earlier class-action lawsuit filed over the test provision, which was eliminated when the Legislature revamped the program in May.