They saw red, so they wore red. Fed-up teachers all across the country, in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and North Carolina, used the color as their symbol of solidarity. Calling out underfunding, stagnant wages and scant benefits, a wave of teacher strikes has made headlines since 2018.
Teachers are standing up for a fair wage. And here in Florida, Orlando educators want to lead the movement in the state. Under law, they can't strike, so they have to voice their dissent through other means.
Teachers wearing red packed the July 30 Orange County Board of Educators meeting. The day before, they had made history by voting down a proposed contract agreement between the school district and their union – the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association (CTA) – for the very first time.
And overwhelmingly so; there were 3,843 nays and 1,017 yeas. That's a 4 to 1 margin.
With overall membership of about 7,800, nearly 55 percent of the district's teachers are in the union, says Wendy Doromal, CTA president. That puts them just over the 50 percent required to be a certified union.
"They deserve a higher wage. Florida is 46 in the nation as far as average teacher pay. That's not acceptable. We have to rise up. And we're hoping that Orlando will be the epicenter for the revolution in Florida," Doromal said in a phone interview last week. "We're seeing a lot of people getting engaged that weren't before."
Her numbers aren't wrong. Florida came in at No. 46 in the National Education Association's 2019 rankings, with an average public teacher salary of $48,168 for the 2017-2018 school year. The nationwide average is $60,477 for the same time period.
Why are Central Florida's teachers standing up this time? Teachers have been overworked and underpaid for as long as we all can remember. But here in Orange County, the straw that broke the camel's back was health care.
Under the voted-down 2019-2020 contract, there's a costly increase in premiums that hits teachers with families the hardest. Under the "Plan A" health care plan, the most popular among teachers, an employee choosing family coverage would have $422 deducted from their pay every month, a steep increase from last year's $300 deduction. For single teachers with covered children, it would go from $50 to $70 a month. Employees with a covered spouse would go from a $250 deduction to a $352 deduction.
David Grimm, an OCPS teacher who ran for school board last year, called out the policy at the school board meeting.
"It has been stated numerous times that the insurance increases in the original bargaining agreement only affects a small amount of teachers. The truth is it also affects the children of the teachers, especially the single moms and dads," Grimm told the board. "How can teachers be effective when they are worried about how to provide for their own children?"
One of those affected teachers would be Katherine Garcia, single mom and veteran teacher in the school district, who also spoke out at the school board meeting.
"I have to support my children on my own and with this proposed raise in insurance, I already have to decide whether I want to go to the doctor or feed my family," she told the board.
Garcia, a teacher in the district for more than 15 years, told the board that she drives an 11-year-old car that breaks down twice a month because she can't afford to get a new one.
"I just beg you," Garcia continued. "Please let's come together and find the money to help us, please."
What the CTA wanted was a far cry from the contract they rejected. In an ideal world, they would have walked away from bargaining with a 10 percent increase to the payroll and no increase on health insurance premiums. Also, Doromal said, they'd hoped for a policy change so that money in the reserves that can currently only be used for non-recurring payments like bonuses could be used for salary increases as well.
Instead, the proposed contract saw insurance contributions go up by 18.8 percent, with 10 percent of that absorbed by the district, and the rest of the hike appearing in insurance premiums.
The increase sought to cover a deficit that stemmed from an uptick in catastrophic claims, says Mary-Grace Surrena, a school psychologist on the CTA bargaining team. The district was projecting a similar trend for the next fiscal year, so insurance went up.
"That is one thing that we had really going for us, because salary had been an issue, but we can look at it and say, at least we have the best insurance plans and fees. And now that seems to be going away," Surrena said in a phone interview. "We have had people go to other school districts for better pay and come back because our insurance was better here."
The rejected agreement had offered a 4 percent increase to the payroll. It's also important, Doromal adds, to understand what a payroll increase means. It doesn't mean the same as a salary increase, in which pay goes up across the board. A payroll increase means the total allocated amount of money to pay all teachers goes up, then the raises are divvied out accordingly based on pay grade. With higher insurance fees, some teachers would end up bringing home less pay than the year before.
Matthew Hazel, a member of the CTA's bargaining team, had warned the district the insurance premiums would be an "extremely bitter pill" to swallow. Still, the CTA "worked hard for the best deal that we thought was gettable."
It's clear, he told the board, it wasn't good enough for teachers. So the next step is Tallahassee.
"That is where the loggerhead is," Hazel told the board. "That is where the money is, and that is who we need to influence. We need to be in Tallahassee. All of us in numbers, in force. With the backing of our school board, the backing of our parents, and the backing of our teachers. And that's where we will get the change we need."
At the heart of the struggle surrounding teacher pay is the base student allocation. It's the part of the budget used for teacher salary raises, among other expenses, and this amount is set in Tallahassee. It barely changed last year, to much uproar from educators.
The base student allocation is determined annually by the Florida Legislature. It went from $4,154.45 for 2015-2016 to $4,160.71 in 2016-2017. Then it went from $4,203.95 for 2017-2018 to $4,204.42 for the last fiscal year, according to OCPS budget documents.
Yes, the difference between 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 was, in fact, 47 cents. It prompted a group of superintendents for the largest school districts in the state to pen a guest column in the Tampa Bay Times in March 2018 denouncing the meager rise. Orange County superintendent Barbara Jenkins was among them.
"For the past three years, the Legislature funded limited one-time bonuses for teachers instead of raises. Bonuses help with one-time purchases. They don't help pay the mortgage or cover the annual rising costs of utility bills and health care," the letter read. "The Legislature is touting 'record' funding for schools by counting money slated for safety and mental health, not for education. Their 'record' funding is all funneled into categorical funds and can only be used for certain purposes."
Then in May 2018, the Florida House published a cartoon explainer video of education funding on YouTube, complete with unicorns and a condescending voice-over saying "union bosses and their media allies" created a 47-cent "myth" by taking "one piece of the education budget and declaring it the sum total of education funding."
No, the base student allocation is not the sum total of education spending. It is, however, the part of education spending that addresses teacher salaries. It's the part that will change teachers' financial situations, and it funds certain student programs as well.
And regardless of whether the change is 47 cents or $47, Florida still ranks 43rd in the nation for overall K-12 education spending. The state budgeted $21.1 billion for education in the 2018-2019 fiscal year. Overall per-student funding was at $7,408, more than $4,300 below the national average of $11,762, according to the Florida Policy Institute. For the upcoming 2019-2020 fiscal year, the state increased overall K-12 funding to $21.8 billion. The base student allocation also went up to $4,279.49, this time a difference of $75 instead of 47 cents.
So it's no wonder Orange County teachers finally stood up and made history last week. Now that the contract has been voted down, CTA's bargaining team will go back to the table with the district. It's not possible to reach an agreement before school starts, Doromal says, but the sooner one is reached, the better.
Without one, Doromal says, there are no bonuses, no raises, and health insurance open enrollment will be delayed. Still, as the negotiations are set to continue it seems there's less animosity between teachers and local officials and more collective frustration.
Orange County Public Schools representatives said there has not been a date set for a meeting with the district and union bargainers. The school board must approve any offer the district plans on presenting to the union before they do so, and an offer has yet to be approved.
Officials did not discuss how they would respond to teachers' insurance concerns.
"Any discussions or changes made regarding compensation and benefits will take place during negotiations," OCPS wrote in an emailed statement, adding that they "respect the right of teachers to engage in the ratification process."
The message coming from both teachers and the board has been one of unity. It seems that, for all intents and purposes, the real fight is in the state's capital. In that same sense, teacher David Grimm called for unity last week.
"The teachers of Orange County are tired of being abused, taken for granted and not being heard. School boards, districts, unions and state leaders: We know you can hear our voices now. We hope you are listening," Grimm said. "We can begin to embrace the change that is coming. A movement that can be the catalyst for real progress in public education. I am excited about the opportunity of uniting together to show the rest of Florida that it doesn't have to be us versus them."
This story is from the Aug. 7, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.