It was 8 a.m. and already muggy when around 130 red-clad members and friends of Volusia United Educators began taking their seats on rented buses.
There was one destination, and one purpose for the teachers union — the steps of the state Capitol building in Tallahassee, where the teachers would ask legislators to protect public-education funding.
The statewide community of teacher unions from around the state would meet at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee and march to the steps of the Capitol. The event was organized by the Florida Education Association.
It was the first time in 20 years that teachers from around the state would unite to agitate for change, and the timing was apt: Jan. 13, the eve of the 2020 session of the Florida Legislature.
The impetus was Florida’s dismal ranking in pay for teachers and other instructional staff. According to the National Education Association, as of April 2019, Florida ranks fourth in the nation for amount of total instructional staff (which includes teachers, principals, librarians, etc.), fourth in total number of teachers and third in enrolled students, but 48th among the 50 states in average salary for all instructional staff, and 46th in teacher pay.
And while teacher pay hasn’t significantly budged, the burdens on teachers have grown.
This statewide problem was reflected by the stories of Volusia County teachers who packed the VUE buses.
In November 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared 2020 the “year of the teacher” — but back on the bus, plenty of “Teacher of the Year” award recipients were fed up.
Lisa Bowers, a teacher in Volusia County for 30 years, has a second job on the side as a tutor with a private company.
She’s considering moving to North Carolina, because her salary here just isn’t cutting it, even with the second job, Bowers said.
“I’m considering it, tentatively,” she said.
And according to Bowers, her salary isn’t the only problem.
When money available for teacher pay shrunk post-recession, so did funding for resources. For example, she said, there may be smart tablets, but there aren’t always books.
Bowers said she once had to print books — in black and white, and with computer paper she had to ask the students to donate — to teach her first-grade class about rainbows.
David Meredith, a teacher in the county for nine years, chimed in. His job, teaching severely mentally disabled children, has become increasingly stressful, he said.
On top of continually updated requirements teachers must meet and certifications they must obtain, Meredith is also responsible for individual data portfolios for each child, made three times a year, that take about 40 hours to prepare.
Combine that with his second job, and Meredith, a Teacher of the Year four years ago, is exhausted.
“The stress — I mean, I have trouble sleeping,” he said.
The problem is such that it was worth it for all the teachers to take a personal day off on Monday, to join colleagues from around the state in the effort to push for change.
In Tallahassee, the 130-plus VUE contingent was greeted by Volusia County School Board Member Ruben Colón and then quickly swallowed up in a sea of red, distinguishable only by red beanies stitched with the letters VUE.
Later estimates of attendance put a number on the sea: 15,000 people, representing dozens of counties.
Why wear red? Well, for “ed” — as in education — of course.
The whole pack marched en masse from their meeting point to the steps of the Capitol, carrying signs with phrases such as “It’s time to use our outside voices,” and “Straight Outta paper, tape, pencils,” a play on the famous album title by the hip-hop group N.W.A.
Other signs read “WTF — Where’s The Funding?” and “I teach my students to stand up for themselves — and here’s my turn.”
By far, the most prolific sign was one passed out by FEA volunteers that said “Fund public schools — fund our future.”
On the Capitol steps, as rain began to sprinkle, a series of speakers invigorated the crowd, including the president of the FEA, other statewide education leaders, pastors, teachers, and current and former students.
“In my school career, I am empowered not by data, but by teachers,” Hernando High School senior Sophia Torres said, to roars of approval from the crowd.
The biggest reaction came in response to the appearance of the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“It’s a moral outrage that you do not give equal pay to those who work in education in this state. This is not a political issue — this is a moral issue,” Sharpton said. “If this is the Sunshine State, then take the teachers out of the shade.”
Almost on cue, the sun broke from behind the clouds, as Sharpton led a chant — “Let the sun shine, let the sun shine.”
The day finally ended 13 hours after it began, around 9 p.m., when the buses pulled back into Volusia County.
There wasn’t much tangible to show from the rally, except brand-new beanies and the remains of 15,000 turkey sandwiches that had been passed out by the FEA to the local unions.
Unlike the sandwiches, this conversation isn’t going away.
The following day, anxiety over the possibilities of the state’s final education budget were paramount at the Volusia County School Board meeting that was otherwise joyful, with several top positions — including a human-resources director, and a deputy school superintendent — being filled by qualified candidates.
“I’m going to try and sound positive to you, so that we won’t spoil the mood,” Chief Financial Officer Debra Muller said.
So far, the preliminary budget proposed by Gov. DeSantis would increase the money coming to Volusia County Schools, but still leave Volusia’s per-student spending below the statewide average. How education funding will finally end up, though, could look far different, as legislators make changes and revisions before adopting a state budget.
A pay raise proposed by the governor for first-year teachers may, or may not, actually come to fruition, and at any rate, doesn’t mean much to veteran teachers.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen if the rally has an impact on this legislative session, and the budget the state will hand down.
But there was another point the speakers made that day: There needs to be a change, and if those in power don’t make it, well … It is an election year.