Delegation meeting

Jackson County teacher Dallas Ellis speaks at a local listening session arranged by Florida legislators Sen. George Gainer and Rep. Brad Drake.

In last week’s delegation meeting with Sen. George Gainer and Rep. Brad Drake, held at the Jackson County School Board office ahead of the coming legislative session in Florida, Jackson County teacher Dallas Ellis talked from a three-page set of notes. Most of that material was about the national, state and local teacher shortage, and ways he thinks lawmakers could help reverse the situation.

Raising the salaries of teachers across the board, rather than offering bonuses to a select few, is one way, he said, that the state’s teacher shortage could be addressed. Jackson County is down 11 teachers at this writing, compared to 3.500 statewide, according to his sources.

Ellis learned the day after his presentation that Gov. Ron DeSantis has expressed a desire to potentially do away with the “Best and Brightest” bonus system, which is tied closely to student test scores and schools’ overall “grades”, and replace it with a plan of his own for raises aimed at retaining teachers, instead. Ellis said he was heartened by that news.

Stress and dissatisfaction with pay are the top two reasons existing teachers seriously consider leaving the profession, Ellis had said in his presentation. Florida’s average annual wage for teachers falls $13,562 short of the nation’s average, $11,000 below Georgia’s and $2,642 below Alabama’s, which is at No. 37 in terms of national averages, he said. Before the state’s increased focus on bonuses of all stripes, Florida ranked 28th in terms of average teacher pay. Since then, it has dropped to 46th place, Ellis said, asserting there’s a direct correlation between that ranking and turnover rates. Comparing turnover rates in the three states, he asserts, provides proof of a direct correlation to salary amounts, he maintains. According to him, Georgia has the lowest turnover of the three, with Alabama coming in second, and Florida having the highest.

As for the stress teachers speak of, Ellis said that problem could be addressed by less pressure applied by the state and administrative leaders across the school system regarding test scores. The focus on tests and scores, Ellis said, is a too-narrow measure of a teacher’s merit and fails students as well, because it leaves at risk the well-roundedness of their educational experience. The system as it exists also leaves good teachers out of the running for the bonuses if their school’s overall “grade” does not improve or at least maintain at a certain level for three years running.

Returning to the subject of teacher pay, he says money for across-the-board raises could come from a couple of sources. First, there’s the money currently set aside for a different kind of bonus now in play: Those for rookie sign-ons. At a rough maximum of about $4,000 available for those newcomers who qualify, that set-aside, currently at $284.5 million, should be put into raises, instead, he argues, to help retain longer-term teachers. Bonuses of any kind, he thinks, have the potential to be unfair. Spreading the money equally across the entire teacher population in the state would have meant about $1,576 for each of the state’s 180,442 teachers (that’s his rough count on a number that’s in near-constant flux).

According to him, more than half the teachers in this district work a second job, and many have expressed thoughts of potentially leaving the profession. Ellis said state education sources verify that about 40 percent of Florida teachers do leave the profession within their first five years of service.

And the percentage of lottery funds set aside for the public education trust fund, he said, has shifted from its original 41 percent to its current 26 percent. A shift back toward the original set-aside, he said, could help solve the problem in a big way if some of those extra dollars could then be put toward teacher salaries. According to Ellis, doing so could result in significant increases, enough to put a bite in the turnover rate. He estimates that going back to 41 percent would add an estimated $1 billion back to the fund from which salary dollars could be drawn. If all of it were put into salaries, across the board, Florida teachers would see an increase of more than $5,000 a year.

He also says he thinks Florida should set the minimum salary for teachers, as does Alabama and Georgia, whereas in Florida and some other states, those are set by the local districts. He also wants the state to cut in half the number of service points teacher needs (120) in achieving their periodic requalification requirement and to halve the number of semester hours (from six to three), which they need to acquire in continuing education programs each year.

He also wants the state invoke a continuing contract program that would give teachers at least three years’ job security. Currently they can be dropped without notice and must wait until well after their current school year has ended to find out whether they’ve been retained by their districts. Not having that security can make teachers reluctant to share their ideas for improvement in fear that it could go against the grain of their current administration, and also leaves them less inclined to stay in the profession with that unknown looming each and every year. He wants to see a system implemented that, after a year of satisfactory service, teachers are offered a continuing contract for three more years.

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