Teachers Leaving: SWFL educators warn shortages will only get worse

Don’t do it. That’s what some teachers are ready to tell students looking to become educators.

WINK News sat down with a panel of five teachers who want to tell the public why they think we have a teacher shortage.

Last year, the School District of Lee County lost 24.9 percent of its teachers according to their website. Charlotte County says they lost 18.71 percent and Collier County 10.71 percent.

LINK: Envision 2030: School District of Lee County’s Strategic Plan

Our panelists, Skyler Dennis and Mark Casper, have been with the School District of Lee County for less than five years. They decided not to return next year. They say their teacher salaries can’t support the high cost of living in Southwest Florida.

“It’s just too expensive down here. I have a one bedroom apartment I can barely pay for it on my own,” Casper says.

Both are also concerned about their ability to earn more money down the road.

“It shocks me … to hear about other teachers who have been teaching significantly longer than I have and they have a master’s degree, and then really don’t make much more money than I do,” Dennis says.

The School District of Lee County tells us their average teacher salary is $50,000. In Collier County, it’s $54,941 and Charlotte County, $47,712.05.

LINK: Collier County Public Schools Annual Retention Rate

Florida teachers rank among the bottom five in the nation in salary, according to a National Education Research report published in April.

Casper calls the occupation a good job out of college. “It’s almost dream crushing to me,” Casper says “I just can’t see a career in this profession anymore.”

Teacher Tina Werderman calls Casper and Dennis’ departure a loss.

“That worries me, to see the brain drain of teachers leaving,” Werderman says.

All five teachers tell us they work two jobs.

John Peace says he feels it’s expected teachers supplement their salary.

“It was kind of a running joke that well, OK, I’m struggling financially as a teacher so let’s go get my real estate license,” Peace says.

Peace has a master’s degree and 19 years experience; 12 of those are with Lee County. He makes around $53,000 and is just coming out of a bankruptcy.

LINK: National Education Research report

“That’s because of the childcare costs we have, two of my four children are seven and eight. Day care was just brutal on our budget and we had our children right around the time the economic recession hit.”

Wendy Fiore says her daughter would make a great teacher, but would never consider it.

“She sees the amount of work I put in and she’s like ‘I’m not going to live a life of poverty, and she has actually said I live a life of poverty. It was almost like a punch in the gut — wow you’re right.”

Fiore makes about $50,000. That’s with three degrees and more than 30 years of experience; six of which are with Lee County. She says she can’t even afford to have her kids on her insurance plan.

“My husband is self-employed and he bought insurance, and that’s less money to buy outright and put my children on it.”

Other teachers tell us they rely on state-assistance programs for their children’s health insurance.

For School District of Lee County employees, the cheapest family plan is about $950 a month out of pocket. In Charlotte County, the least expensive family plan is $695.08 and in Collier County $820 a month.

There’s also the pressure of instructing students who don’t have the support at home. While Fiore admits that’s always been part of the job, she wants people to understand, it’s becoming an even larger part of their job.

“We’re their surrogate parents when they’re in those buildings and we can’t help but take that home.”

While it’s not expected of teachers, Werderman says she buys students bedding, clothing, food, and even toiletries.

“You have students who are homeless, students who literally do not have food, they’re in the same clothes you saw them a few days ago,” she said.

Peace says his day doesn’t end when the kids leave for the day, but at nine or 10 o’clock at night when he’s done grading assignments, posting grades and creating the next day’s plans.

“I love being a teacher. I have no intentions of leaving because it’s what I enjoy, it’s what I want to do. I want help. I want people to be aware of what’s not working for us.”

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

Teachers in Southwest Florida aren’t alone in feeling this way.

The Wall Street Journal says teachers and other public education employees are quitting their jobs at the fastest rate on record.

Teacher salaries have seen recent adjustments.

In a previous interview about the 2018/2019 teacher contract, media relations and public information for the School District of Lee County, Rob Spicker, said “The entire compensation package teachers voted in favor and the board approved was six percent larger than their last package,” and the “total compensation includes salary, benefits and supplements.”

He added “Teachers will receive between a 2.5 percent and 9 percent salary increase under the contract.”

Teachers tell us they are unsure of how much they’ll be getting with this raise. They say they find out when it hits their paycheck.

The School District of Collier County says they are in middle of negotiations for next year and that their teachers have received between 2.5 and 3.0 percent raises for the last several years.

Charlotte County, who has the lowest average teacher salary currently, tells us they’re increasing their starting salary to $45,000.09.They also said teachers received a 4.2 percent raise in the 2017/2018 school year.

Rep. Spencer Roach (R) says this they “provided record levels of funding towards education.”

Roach also filed and passed an appropriations bill to create and fund a pilot program called ‘Grow Your Own.’ He says the program will provide a fully funded scholarship for four students who major in educations and agree to spend two years teaching in the Lee County School District.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R) tells us in the 2019-2020 budget, the Florida Senate invested nearly $35 billion in our state’s education system:

“This investment means that school districts now have an additional $354 million in flexible spending that can be used for teacher pay raises or other district needs. We also included $285 million to recruit, retain and recognize our state’s best teachers. Overall, our schools will receive an additional $242 per student in this budget, bringing the total per pupil funding up to a record high of $7,672 per student.

“We invested an additional $18 million in this year’s Safe School budget and provided an additional $5.7 million in funding for our school mental health budget bringing it up to $75 million. We also invested $1.2 billion in our Voluntary Pre-K program and our School Readiness Program. Pre-K-12 comprises 17.8 percent of the budget.

“Together with Higher Education that portion of the budget is 26.9 percent. The only other budget silo allocated more funding is Health Care which comes in at 41.3 percent. Those two silos leave very little to fund all other government operations.”

Sen. Passidomo also sent along a breakdown of the budget and budget categories HERE.

School District of Lee County Board Member Chris Patricca says it’s still not enough and that we have an education funding crisis.

“We’ve had to cut so much from our budget in order to provide teachers with raises that the next cut will have a direct negative impact on instruction in classrooms and that really concerns me,” she explained.

Patricca says she will connect concerned parents and teachers with the people who can make a change.

For those concerned, a letter isn’t enough, Patricca welcomes more involvement.

“Come to Tallahassee with me, that will really have an impact,” Patricca says, “I’m only one person, I’m only one voice. But if I stand with thousands of teachers behind me, then they’re more likely to see more clearly what the need is.”

But until something changes, our teachers say it’s only going to get worse.

“You don’t have to listen to us, but talk to your kids. It’s going to get worse for them.”

Reporter:Allison Gormly
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