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Volusia County teachers are getting a pay raise, but the boost is bigger for teachers just starting out than it is for veterans.

Dr. Michelle Maclin has taught in Volusia County Schools for nine years. Over that time, her starting salary of $38,000 has increased to about $42,000 — which is now less than the starting salary for teacher’s with only bachelor’s degrees and no experience.

The newest raises bring her pay to that of a starting teacher. Her doctorate in educational leadership did not affect her initial starting salary.

45th — Florida’s ranking in the U.S. for average instructional staff salary, according to data from the National Education Association from the 2018-19 school year.

45th — Volusia County’s ranking among Florida’s counties for average teacher salary according to data from the Florida Department of Education for the 2019-20 school year. This data includes every county in Florida, as well as Florida Virtual School, and lab schools at the University of Florida, Florida State University, Florida Atlantic University, and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.

$39,609 — Starting salary for a Volusia County Schools teacher with only a bachelor’s degree and no experience, during the 2019-20 school year.
$44,335 — New starting salary for beginning Volusia County Schools teachers after the agreed-upon increase. 
2.5 — The minimum percentage increase in salary for all Volusia County Schools teachers, retroactive to July 2020. 

“It sucks,” Maclin said. “A brand new teacher coming in, who has no experience, no classroom management, who is learning to build relationships with students — they are making the same amount of money as me, and I’ve been perfecting my craft for years. They are coming to me for advice and guidance, but we make the same amount of money. It’s really kind of a slap in the face.”

These days, teachers with advanced degrees make more, but not so when Maclin earned her doctorate.

After two months of sometimes tensebargaining between Volusia United Educators — the county teachers union — and the school district, an agreement was reached to raise the base salary for full-time classroom teachers by about $5,000 — from $39,609 to $44,335. 

The deal calls for all Volusia County Schools teachers to get a 2.5-percent raise, even if they already make more than the new beginning salary. All raises will be retroactive to July 2020.

Michelle Maclin has taught in Volusia County for nine years. She teaches at Southwestern Middle School in DeLand.

By raising the base salary for beginning teachers, new teachers salaries will be closer, and in some cases on par, with the salaries of their veteran coworkers. While the raise is appreciated, and represents a real boost for some teachers, the move has left some longtime teachers frustrated, as their pay barely increased, or raises were eaten up by higher health-care costs, for example..

As part of the bargaining team that negotiated the deal, Maclin said, she is happy the teachers and the school district were able to come to an agreement, but she still doesn’t think the raise was enough, especially considering the challenges COVID-19 has brought to teaching. 

Maclin said she has considered teaching elsewhere, and the COVID-19 crisis, and how the school district has approached it, has made her family give the possibility of a move even more consideration.

“My husband and I have discussed it. We have come to the decision that this may very well be my last year in Volusia,” she said. “I literally can go to Seminole and make more money, or Flagler, or Orange, and make more money, and it would compensate for my commute. I only teach in Volusia because I live in Volusia.”

Added stress

Before VUE and the district made it to the bargaining table, Volusia County teachers took to the streets with other Florida teachers in January 2020 to protest for better wages and better funding for schools. 

Six months later, in June 2020, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that allocated $500 million to raise base salaries for teachers across the state. Counties were given leeway in how to use the funds.

The money that paid for Volusia County teacher salaries came from the state Department of Education, specifically to raise the base pay for classroom teachers as close to $47,500 as possible. 

Here’s how neighboring counties used the money they were allocated

Brevard: Brevard County public schools raised the base salary for teachers from $39,226 to $46,550. Any teacher already making more than the base salary received an $850 raise. 

Orange: Orange County public schools raised its base salary for teachers from $40,500 to $47,500. All other teachers, according to Orange County Classroom Teachers Association President Wendy Doromal, got a 1.27-percent raise. Teachers with advanced degrees, she added, received an additional raise.

Seminole: Seminole County public schools raised its base salary from $40,000 to $46,300. All teachers already making more than the new base salary received a 2-percent increase.

One of the Volusia County Schools teachers who traveled to Tallahassee to protest was Lisa Bowers, a first-grade teacher at Spruce Creek Elementary in Port Orange. Bowers has spent 30 years teaching in Volusia County.

The Beacon spoke with her in December 2020, to see how she was feeling after the announcement of the pay raise.

Bowers said the raise is welcome, but she likely won’t see much of it after she spends personal funds on supplies for her classroom. 

“I still spend the same amount for my classroom, so it’s not going to change that,” Bowers said. “You still have to ask parents for things. Right now, I’m being more frugal, trying to stay home and put money away to retire, so every little bit helps, but I just feel like I’m not valued.”

Lisa Bowers has taught in Volusia County for 30 years. She was Spruce Creek Elementary School’s Teacher of the Year for the 2018-19 school year.

In an average school year, Bowers said, she spends some $1,000 on classroom supplies. This year, the burden increased because of her efforts to keep her classroom COVID-19-safe.

Maclin also said she will likely not see much of her raise, as her health-insurance premium rose along with her salary. Health-insurance premiums for teachers rose by about $20 monthly, Maclin told The Beacon, but the cost adds up when she is paying for family coverage.

In an average year, she said, she typically spends $300-500 on classroom supplies, and that has increased because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In January 2020, Bowers told The Beacon that she was considering leaving Volusia County to teach in a county where she would be paid more. When we spoke almost a year later, she was still considering it. 

“COVID-19 has really made it so much more difficult for teachers. I’m exhausted, I have no help,” Bowers said. “Even teachers younger than me, you can see the exhaustion.”

The difficulties brought on by COVID-19 have made teachers’ roles even more important, Maclin said, despite what she considered middling support from the school district.  

“We are struggling with COVID-19 in our personal lives,” she said. “But we have to provide social and emotional support for our students at the same time, and there is no support for us.”

The flow of money to the school district is determined by a number of factors. One is the District Cost Differential (DCD), a mechanism imposed by the state that takes school funding from some districts and gives it to others based on a county’s cost of hiring staff and local cost of living, among other things.

The DCD also uses an “amenity factor” that assumes people living in a desirable location would be willing to accept lower salaries.

Volusia is among Florida counties that give funding rather than receive extra. For the 2020-21 school year, Volusia County Schools lost $9.9 million, which went to counties whose judged to have higher costs of living, or fewer amenities.

Not enough to go around?

School Board Member Ruben Colon traveled to Tallahassee in 2020 with the educators. He said the 2.5-percent pay increase was won, in part, because of the teachers’ activism. 

It’s a step in the right direction, he told The Beacon, but he hopes to see more done in 2021. 

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” Colon said. 

Volusia County is experiencing a teacher shortage, and Elizabeth Albert, VUE president, said she doesn’t think the raise is going to meaningfully help.

“The State of Florida has underfunded public education for decades now,” Albert said. “We’re beyond 20 years for this diabolical plan that I think they have put in place to do everything to come at public schools, including the ability to draw people into it. We see colleges of education having lower and lower enrollment.”

On top of underfunding, Bowers fears the ongoing pandemic will serve to further dampen interest in starting a teaching career in Volusia County. She said she has seen interns change their minds after seeing classrooms firsthand.

“If you love teaching, which I do, I say do it,” Bowers said. “If you’re in it for the money and you think you’re going to have all this time off, it’s not really true.”

For Bowers and Maclin, what keeps them in the system, they said, are the kids.

“I truly believe our children have to see and know there is some stability and feel safe, and I think teachers provide that for students,” Maclin said. “I would say the thing that keeps me in it is the relationships between my students and my colleagues.”

Bowers told a story about an event she hosts every year — an immersive activity that turns her classroom into the eponymous train from the book “The Polar Express.”

“I set up my room as a train, I blew the whistle, and we did everything like the “Polar Express.” We had a wonderful, magical day. It was so sweet,” Bowers said. “They had their little jammies on, their stuffed animals, we had hot cocoa and only three spills. The floor was a mess, and who cleaned it up? Me! I had to use my little swiffer and I was there until 6:30 p.m. Friday night, and I was there until 8:30 p.m. the night before preparing.”

While Bowers said the extra work was worth it to see the kids’ excitement, the lack of support is indicative of bigger problems in classrooms across the county. 

The time that is required to teach, she said, well exceeds standard work hours. 

ALL ABOARD — Every year, the day before her first grade students begin their winter break, Spruce Creek teacher Lisa Bowers decks out her classroom to resemble the eponymous train from the book “The Polar Express.” Bowers is a vocal critic of the low salaries for teachers in Volusia County, but, she said, days like “Polar Express” are why she teaches. “To see the faces, to take a book and make it magical,” Bowers said. “That’s why I teach.”

Change on the horizon?

“What keeps me going is your individual relationships with students,” one Campbell Middle School teacher who didn’t want their name used told The Beacon. “I can’t tell them — the governor, the education commissioner — what that feels like, being the person for somebody else that you needed when you were in middle school and high school.”

For this teacher, the $5,000 was welcome.

“I was thrilled,” the teacher said. 

But knowing other teachers with more experience are making only slightly more is frustrating.

Nobody gets into teaching to get rich, this teacher said, but considering the amount of work that goes into the job, making a little more would be nice. 

“I don’t think any teacher gets into the profession to get rich because it is so emotionally taxing. We know we are not going to make any money,” the teacher said. “You’re trying to make a better world for other people.”

VUE President Albert said she agreed there is still much to be done when it comes to raises and allowing the county — instead of the state — to make local salary decisions. 

“I think that what the governor did is a good, first step,” Albert said. 

School Board Member Carl Persis — a retired teacher and school administrator — agreed that the current agreement is a first step.

“The amount of money the state allocated for salaries is long overdue,” he said. “Because it’s so long overdue, it’s hard to catch up.”

Persis said this effort was squarely aimed at boosting new teacher salaries. 

“Is it perfect?” he asked. “No.”

While the district has also adopted longevity bonuses — stipends for veteran teachers — he hopes efforts will be made by the state to provide more for longtime educators in Volusia County.

Longevity bonuses kick in for teachers after 11 years with Volusia County Schools. Teachers receive a $100 bonus when they reach 11 years, and for each additional year, they receive another $100 bonus per year. Stipends cap at 25 years, where teachers receive a flat $1,500.

Maclin has been in the system for nine years, so she has two more years to put in before getting a bonus for experience.

“I can’t say that I was extremely pleased. I’m glad that we got to a point that was somewhat equitable for everyone involved,” Maclin said. “Less equitable, of course, for those of us that have been in the system longer, but at least more equitable for what the district was willing to do in the beginning. I’ve been in the system for nine years, and my salary will be the exact same as a brand new teacher.”

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