Tensions boil surrounding Hillsborough Co. teacher raises

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More than 100 Hillsborough County teachers gathered outside the school board meeting Tuesday, demanding a pay raise that the district said it can't afford.

A day earlier, negotiators from the district offered teachers a $1.8 million pay bonus that the union could distribute as it sees fit.

While that figure might sound high, teachers were expecting about eight times that amount.

The union said, by its math, if you split the district's offer among the 20,000 Hillsborough County teachers it ends up being a pay bump of just $92 per person. When spread among the 4,800 teachers asking for a raise this year, it's still only a couple hundred dollars.

"If you don't take care of your teachers, who in the end is affected? The kids are," said Jennifer Terenzi, a teacher at Hunter's Green Elementary School.

Terenzi said she and her colleagues are hoping for enough money to cover cost-of-living increases and the amount of money she pays out of her own pocket for her classroom which, at this point, is about $2,000.

She's among the teachers who said they've been told they'll receive a raise after they've worked in the district for three years. According to the teacher's union, the $4,000 figure comes from the pay scale listed on the district's website.

"Budgets are about choices and in this district, we've consistently chosen to put employees last and that's a problem," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, Executive Director of the Hillsborough County Teacher's Association.

Board member April Griffin, however, said a salary increase is not guaranteed in the teachers' contract, which is negotiated each year. On top of that, the district currently has a $44 million budget shortfall and has dipped into its reserves so many times its been warned by bond rating agencies to discontinue doing so or risk higher interest rates.

Griffin said that could cause a serious issue.

"When we have to borrow money to build these schools down in south county to meet the growth down there, it will cost the taxpayers millions of dollars a year in interest payments alone," she explained.

Meanwhile, both sides are hoping to see the other side budge.

"I hope so, but based on what they came back to us with [Monday], I'm not optimistic," Terenzi said.

While the Hillsborough County School Board meeting carried on as usual Tuesday afternoon, it was hard to ignore the sound of protestors standing outside the glass doors.

The sound of "vote them out, vote them out," could be heard as board member discussed other issues.

Non-employees were the first to address the school board. "You want to tout a 15% growth in graduation rates but yet you don't honor the troops that are out there doing the work. That's your job, to pay those teachers," said Stephen Dewhite.

"To me, the quality of the schools is these individuals behind me. The teachers," said Margaret Miller, getting emotional.

The school board addressed a few other items before it was time for employee comments. More than two dozen teachers lined up to speak.

"If it's that bad, let's get a sales tax on the ballot and let the people decide whether they want this thing to go or not," said Leo Haggerty, Vice President of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

"We are tired, we don't feel heard, we don't feel respected," said teacher Joshua Newhouse.

Teachers say the budget issues aren't their faults but some say it could force them to switch districts.

"It is my choice to teach," said teacher Joshua Fishbein. "It certainly isn't for the money and how much longer will it be before my choice is to be somewhere else where I, where we, are valued at $92 an hour."

"You've awoken a sleeping giant and believe me, they're mad, they're hungry, and they're loud," Haggerty said.

The school board did not address the pay raise issue at tonight's meeting after employee comments. There's no timeline on when agreement could be reached.