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    Bookkeepers with the Nassau County School District were recognized for the results of a recent audit that showed no reportable conditions or material weaknesses. From left, Ellen Harper, chief accountant; Chris Lacambra, executive director of Business Services; Ed Brown, Fernandina Beach Middle School principal, Susan Kegley, who accepted for Kathy Shipman; Brenda Higginbotham, Callahan Elementary School; Candice Ritsma, Wildlight Elementary School; Carol Rose, Yulee High School; and Natasha Drake, YHS principal. Not pictured are Sharon Blanton, Hilliard Elementary School, and Sandra Boatwright, Yulee Primary School. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER

School Board discusses legislative needs, teacher pay

Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his proposal for raising the minimum salary for teachers across the state to $47,500, a move that would make beginning Florida teachers the second-highest paid in the country.

Nassau County School District officials say they have more questions than answers regarding the initiative and still intend to pursue a plan to let Nassau County voters decide if they are willing to pay more property taxes in order to pay teachers “a living wage.”

Before last week’s regular meeting, the Nassau County School Board held a workshop to discuss what issues it would ask state representatives to make a priority during next year’s legislative session. Teacher pay was on that short, focused list. 

Board members also talked about DeSantis’ plan, which would use $600 million in state funds to increase teachers’ salaries in a bid to attract teachers to Florida during what DeSantis called “a teacher shortage.” The details of the plan are to be released within 30 days of the governor’s Oct. 7 announcement.

Members of the School Board and Superintendent Dr. Kathy Burns said they found DeSantis’ announcement encouraging, but they also have concerns. One is that the pay increase might only be for beginning teachers.

“It’s about a 20% (pay) increase for a beginning teacher,” Burns said. “We are all for an increase to teacher salaries, but when a … teacher (with 30 years of experience) makes $51,000, how are going to spread the wealth and share those raises across the board? We want to recruit the best teachers and be able to pay them a living wage, but we also want to retain teachers as well.”

School Board Chairwoman Donna Martin said more experienced teachers may not stay in the county if they are paid only a few thousand more than a beginning teacher.

“We can’t just let all that experience walk out the door,” Martin said. “You can’t have a … teacher (with 30 years of experience) making just $5,000 more than a beginning teacher. We’re going to lose our veterans, and we need them.”

“They’re not enough to walk in the door if we lose our experienced ones,” School Board Vice Chairwoman Gail Cook said.

Cook said another concern is that the legislature would approve the raises then pull the funding.

“All the publicity after they have a (legislative) session is, ‘We are giving all of this new money.’ And then … (after) the finance department crunches the numbers, (the legislature) is not,” Cook said. “I really do think, without seeing the numbers, I’m not 100% sure, but we would have more funds if they would quit passing unfunded and underfunded mandates. My concern is that it will become an unfunded mandate. That they will put the salaries in there and then they will fund it this year, and after this year they won’t fund it any more and we are scrambling.”

Burns said the district’s budget is already strained by requirements to provide more services, such as mental health assistance.

“The two things, legislative mandates, that we have to reach in K-12 and sixth grade related to mental health,” she said. “There are basically no standards or plan for what this is, but we have to make this happen and have the expertise to do that …. In the past year, the number of students we have seen with mental health issues makes the ratio of counselors or other personnel to students is 130-to-one. That is impossible. There are more and more mandates. The question is, how and what are we supposed to do?”

In working to create the list of legislative priorities for state Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, and Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, the board agreed the list would be more effective if it is short, so they agreed it should consist of only three items: safety, mental health, and operating expenses.

Operating expenses include teacher salaries. Board members said they worry specifically requesting increases to those salaries would not be well received if the public has the impression that school districts across the state are already receiving millions of dollars for teachers’ salaries.

The School Board agreed to wait to craft the final language of its legislative priorities until after its members meet with the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners.

Also at the regular meeting, the School Board:

• Approved a revision to Administrative Rule 2.51 regarding safe and secure schools;

• Approved using a continuing contract with MV Cummings Engineers for engineering design of replacement HVAC system at Fernandina Beach High School;

• Updated the job descriptions for the school district’s chief of police and school safety specialist;

• Approved using a continuing contract with Mittauer & Associates Inc. for engineer and design services to address traffic issues at Hilliard Elementary and Callahan Intermediate; and

• Approved a policy governing the use of medical marijuana at school facilities.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show that operating expenses include teacher salaries. Board members said they worry specifically requesting increases to those salaries would not be well received if the public has the impression that school districts across the state are already receiving millions of dollars for teachers’ salaries.

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