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$25 is a gift card — not a cost of living increase

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Eric Grimmer

Guest Commentary

Monday, December 27, 2021

 $25 is a gift card — not a cost of living increase

Courtesy of SpeakUp

Members of the advocacy organization SpeakUp, including commentary author Eric Grimmer, second from left, and Wendy Doromal, CTA President, third from right, gathered on Dec. 14 to demonstrate for fair teacher pay. at the Ronald Blocker Educational Leadership Center in downtown Orlando.

At the Dec. 14 Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) board meeting, Dep. Supt. Maria Vazquez nodded to the Great Resignation, acknowledging that the pandemic has led to a changing labor market and “workers’ reevaluation of the jobs they want to pursue.”

Included in that is a critical OCPS teacher shortage. There are more than 190 teacher vacancies throughout Orange County’s 200 schools. Substitute teachers are also in short supply. In October, nearly 4,000 OCPS classes did not have substitutes when needed. Even enrollment in University of Central Florida’s teacher education program is down compared with four years ago.

The exodus of teachers is statewide, so this is not merely an Orange County problem. However, Orange County’s teacher shortage is at least partially based on the salaries OCPS teachers earn. On average, OCPS teachers earn more annually ($52,334) than educators working in other Central Florida counties. But since Florida ranks 49th in the country in overall teacher pay, earning “more” is relative. Meanwhile the cost of living in Orange County continues to outpace OCPS teacher salaries.

According to Bloomberg, Central Florida is now the fifth least affordable area for housing when adjusted for wages. The median home price in Orlando rose $5,000 to $330,000 in just the last month. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Orlando increased nearly 30 percent in one year. And out of 100 cities, Orlando ranked 13th for the 28 percent of earnings a teacher must spend on housing, according to a MagnifyMoney analysis of U.S. Bureau of 2020 Labor Statistics and 2019 Census Bureau. McAllen, Texas, was last at just under 14 percent while Colorado Springs topped the list at nearly 33 percent.

All of which helps to understand why the school district’s current proposal to the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association (CTA), the teachers union, makes no serious effort to solve this existential problem.

The district’s proposal includes a $25 cost of living increase and a raise of $150 for teachers rated Highly Effective based on state requirements, which is most OCPS teachers. This $175 yearly wage increase translates to 0.3% of the average OCPS teacher’s annual salary. For a teacher rated Effective, the annual raise is $100 per year, or 0.2% of the average annual salary of an OCPS teacher.

Twenty-five dollars is a gift card, not a “cost of living” increase. Given that inflation rose 6.8 percent in November, compared with last year, a 0.3 percent salary increase does not even cover the cost of living in our communities.

The district also proposed a one-time supplement of $2,500 for all teachers and additional three-year supplements based on years teaching. These longevity supplements require five years of teaching to receive the minimum payout of $500. Only those with 30-plus years would receive the maximum of $3,000. This is woefully insufficient to compensate teachers for the heroic feats they perform in the classroom daily, and especially during the pandemic when they’ve had to manage their own fears of infection, remote learning, mask battles and angry parents.

The CTA rightly rejected the district’s proposal during collective bargaining for its new contract, declaring an impasse during negotiations in July. Impasse occurs when one party determines that no further progress can be made, and a special magistrate is brought in to adjudicate. An impasse hearing is scheduled for January 5, but as reported on the SpeakUp Facebook page, the magistrate has already ruled that plans to hike health insurance costs were "unconscionable" and additional longevity supplements were doable. 

The district’s needs to and can do better by our educators, especially since the county has 7 percent of its budget in reserve — more than double the 3 percent required by law. The board continually claims it needs to squirrel away those reserves to prepare for some undefined future contingency. But public education in Orange County will not have much of a future without retaining the teachers it has and hiring others.

If reserves are meant for a rainy day, that day has arrived. It is pouring on OCPS teachers, and the district is hoarding the umbrellas.

Eric Grimmer is an attorney and an advocate for SpeakUp, which supports a robust, inclusive, and equitable public education that is accessible for all children in Orange County. He is also a father of two, including an OCPS kindergartner.

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