OCOEE, Florida -- Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday called on state lawmakers to give every full time public school teacher a $2,500 raise, a request that was met with encouragement, caution and a more than a little skepticism by lawmakers and teacher advocates.
Visiting Ocoee Middle School in central Florida, the governor said he would push lawmakers to approve the across-the-board pay increase for full-time teachers, who have gone several years without raises and been asked to pay more for retirement as the state and local school districts have scrambled for cash.
"Ultimately, I want all Florida families to have more opportunities to pursue their dreams," Scott said in remarks prepared for delivery at the school. "That means more job opportunities. It is impossible to connect more Floridians with great jobs without a strong education system that supports student achievement."
The raise, which would have to be approved by the Legislature and subject to local collective bargaining agreements, would cost taxpayers about $480 million – money not everyone is certain can be found.
The state's largest teachers union was "encouraged" by the news.
"This begins to repair the damage that has been done to our students and those who work in our schools,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association. The union has clashed frequently with Republicans in Florida over the last decade or so, over teacher pay, as well as many other issues.
Key lawmakers said they support the governor's efforts, but stressed that any discussion of teacher pay and benefits has to be part of a large budget discussion – and some aren't sure the money is available.
Though revenues are expected to increase in the coming fiscal year, lawmakers say that years of budget deficits and austerity have affected all branches of government.
Senate President Don Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County schools superintendent, said he prefers an approach of providing more funding to local school boards, which would then make decisions about pay increases.
When told of its expected cost, Gaetz acknowledged that it could be challenging to find the money. But he said it could involve making tradeoffs in deciding how to spend state funds.
"$480 million is a lot of money,'' said Gaetz, R-Niceville."It's more money than some people think we'll have."
Scott is expected to release his full budget recommendation next week. Lawmakers, who convene in March, are not required to do anything with his spending blueprint. Historically, however, legislative leaders have at least given the governor's plan some consideration.
The governor, who plans to run for re-election in 2014, began putting education issues on the front burner last year with calls on lawmakers to restore $1 billion to education coffers that had been trimmed by more than that following the collapse of the Florida housing market and subsequent recession.
State economists are predicting an uptick in revenues for the coming fiscal year as the state's real estate market rebounds, businesses get back on their feet and consumers feel more confident. But lawmakers say counting on that additional revenue right now is a little premature.
"We need to make sure those funds are there," said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the chairman of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee that would decide whether or not to include the raises in the Senate budget.
"They're basing that additional money on projected revenue gains," Galvano said. "And that very well may be the case, and we certainly support increased funding for education, but again we have to … run all the traps before we can work it into the education budget."
"We look forward to working with the governor and seeing his entire budget recommendations and seeing how that works, how he is putting that together," said Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, and chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Scott's push for across the board pay raises follows an earlier policy focused more on merit pay.
"I believe in merit pay, I believe in measurement I believe in accountability," Scott told reporters earlier Wednesday. "We're going to continue to work on that, but right now the right thing to do is across the board pay raises for all of our full time teachers."
House Speaker Will Weatherford has also expressed interest in a merit pay proposal.
Some Democrats said the governor is pandering to teachers as he seeks to stay in the governor's mansion.
"You have to step back and look at it that way," said Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "It is a political move, especially since he doesn't appear to want to any (raises) for police, firefighter and other public employees.
"It's almost an affront to their intelligence," Pafford said. "Waving dollars after a clear anti-public education agenda and expecting to them to jump on the Scott bandwagon. Public educators know where he stands."'
Bur regardless of any political motive, some say the proposal is the first step in getting teachers some compensation after they were required to put 3 percent of their salaries into their pension plans and absorb a 2 percent increase in the federal social security tax.
"I'm sure there are those who would consider this to be a political move," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and a former teacher, principal and school superintendent. "I can't judge the governor on that but what I can say is that it is good for public education to recognize teachers in this manner."
By MICHAEL PELTIER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA