Michelle Carasco thought life would be easier by the time she turned 50.
It would be the special education teacher’s 25th year working for the Miami-Dade County School District. She would finally be drawing the maximum salary of over $70,000. The youngest of her four children would be graduating from high school. Carasco could finally start saving for retirement.
Instead, at age 47, Carasco faces the grim reality of being a teacher in Miami-Dade: Her base salary is just $58,068 after 22 years of teaching special education. She spends her after-school time like many American teachers: tutoring for extra money, teaching Saturdays and in night school, even taking up a second job to make ends meet.
It hasn’t been enough. She lost her Florida City home in foreclosure two years ago. Carasco, who has a master’s degree, had to move in with a friend for a year.
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In 2015, after new state laws that ended tenure for teachers went into effect, the school district and teacher’s union agreed to change the way it pays teachers. Carasco and thousands of mid- and late-career teachers who hadn’t reached those final steps, like her, missed out on scheduled raises worth thousands as a reward for their dedication to the profession.
To rectify that, the district is hoping voters will adopt a four-year plan to raise property taxes to increase teacher pay. The referendum, marketed as Secure Our Future, is projected to net $232 million by next July — and $200 million is expected to boost the salaries of 20,000 teachers.
But the referendum must overcome the disillusionment of the teachers it’s supposed to help. Many spent years working for raises that never came and instead found themselves cut off from what should have been their prime earning years. To make up for it, teachers have clamored for extra work. And amid skyrocketing costs of living, teachers who own homes will have to say yes to paying higher taxes out of their own pockets for a larger paycheck.
“I support it begrudgingly,” said Carasco, who teaches at Coconut Palm Middle School. She explained why: “We shouldn’t even need this referendum to get what we are due.”
The campaign to pay teachers more was so coincidental, it almost seemed to be planned.
News of the Miami-Dade County Public School district’s historic achievement of an A grade from the state was announced as an ad-hoc task force, originally proposed by School Board member Steve Gallon, recommended the district turn to the voters to pay teachers more.
Superintendent Alberto Carvalho counted the justifiable reasons why school districts ought to pay more: Despite years of underfunding through the Florida Legislature that put large districts like Miami-Dade at a financial disadvantage, teachers produced unprecedented results, and they ought to be rewarded for it.
Staring down a budget that left hardly any increase in funding that could be used for teacher raises, Miami-Dade turned to a tactic that several other school districts have used since at least 2004. Not once has a school tax referendum ever failed in Florida.
So did Broward County, which passed its own referendum in the primary election, netting a 6 percent raise for teachers. Palm Beach County also has a referendum on the general election ballot to benefit teachers.
At a recent televised town hall meeting, Carvalho said 14 percent of Miami-Dade’s teacher workforce lives in Broward. He predicted that the referendum’s failure could lead to an exodus of teachers to the north.
If that grim prediction holds true, the teacher shortage that plagues Florida — there were 4,000 vacancies when the school year began in August — would arrive in the state’s largest district.
The big picture
Today’s reality in Miami-Dade is reflected in the median reported base salary: $46,174. About 2,600 teachers (13 percent) have reached the maximum salary, which stands at $72,720. (Teachers are paid for working 10 months. If those teachers all worked 12 months at the same rate of pay, they would earn $55,408.80 at the median salary.)
“A lot of teachers will say, ‘I make less than 50 [thousand],’ and that’s probably true,” said Dawn Baglos, an administrative director in the district’s office of labor relations and compensation administration.
Those figures don’t factor in any supplemental pay for advanced degrees or extra duties like coaching or forgoing a planning period to teach a class instead. Annual reported salaries tracked by the district tell a much deeper story.
The average annual salary, including supplemental pay, in Miami-Dade is $58,100; the median is $53,063.
The vast majority of teachers have some kind of supplemental pay. Just 1,261 teachers (about 6 percent) have no supplements, according to the district. But extra duties can be fleeting, dependent on each school’s annual budget — and can even be granted or withdrawn at the whims of principals.
“Sometimes we see that favoritism happens,” said United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats. “There are people who are very deserving but they [principals] make a decision that goes another way.”
Take Anneris Rodriguez, a single mom of two boys, who used to make $58,000 a year as a Spanish and language arts teacher at Jorge Mas Canosa Middle School. She tutored after school and in private sessions ($100-$200 a month), spent nine years teaching through her planning period (an extra $5,000) and, after three years of applying, snagged a coveted night school teaching job. She held onto that gig (about $650 a month) through declining enrollment until last year. Then she lost her planning period supplement, too.
Rodriguez’s true salary, her base pay without hustling, was revealed: After 17 years of teaching, she made $46,078. That’s just $5,000 more than the starting salary of a brand new teacher in Miami-Dade.
“All at one time I was out basically $1,000 a month and was back to my base salary,” said Rodriguez, 52.
Last year, Jennifer Desa led teacher training at Southridge Senior High (an extra $515), served as the senior class sponsor ($1,319) and the yearbook adviser ($2,102) while teaching through both of her planning periods including one for special education students, netting her an extra $11,000. She got an extra $500 for teaching at a school with a high population of students from low-income families.
“We were buying a house and that was the only way that was going to happen,” she said. Her base salary is $45,631.
Despite that workload, Desa’s students excelled on state tests. She earned $1,200 for being a highly effective teacher. But the school this year only offered to pay her to work through one of her planning periods.
“Even just to move from eight periods last year to seven periods this year is a financial struggle,” she said.
If it passes ....
If the referendum passes on Tuesday, $75 for every $100,000 in assessed taxable property value will go toward paying teachers, instructional personnel and school safety personnel, according to the ballot language.
It doesn’t say how much teachers stand to benefit; that will come through collective bargaining with the union. School Board members did confirm to the Miami Herald that they agreed in an executive session to give 88 percent of the funding to teachers while 12 percent would be reserved for hiring police officers and paying them adequately.
The district and the union said it would go public with an agreement detailing how much money certain teachers would make, but as of Thursday, that announcement had not been made. Hernandez-Mats’ said her conservative estimate gives a minimum of $5,000, or 12.5 percent of a teacher’s base pay, for teachers rated effective and highly effective.
Carvalho promised this: With the passage of the referendum, teacher salaries would rise above the national average (the district uses the National Education Association’s figures) of $59,660. The “uneven and unfair distribution” of salaries from the change in pay scales would be corrected, and mid-career teachers who lost out on big raises would get their fair share.
Alternatively, the Broward County school district laid out specifically how the money would be spent in official policy approved by the School Board.
“That was a separate vote that the board felt was needed,” said John Sullivan, who worked on Broward’s referendum as the district’s director of legislative affairs. “We did feel it was important that the community understood at least the percentage of how that money would be spent in the silos.”
But unlike Broward, prominent Miami leaders launched a political action committee that has raised a quarter million dollars as of Thursday. UTD’s PAC, Teachers for Public School Excellence, has mobilized for the campaign, although expenditures have yet to be reported.
The referendum faces no organized opposition and has received the endorsement of local celebrities, including retired Miami Heat stars Ray Allen and Alonzo Mourning.
Keith Donner, a Miami-based political consultant who has worked with UTD in the past, said Broward needed to lay out more details about its referendum because its credibility took a hit with the rocky rollout of its 2014 SMART bond program. Miami-Dade passed a bond referendum to renovate schools and upgrade technology in 2012 without issue.
“Ten years ago it would’ve been imperative to have every single detail worked out before,” Donner said. “The Miami-Dade school district has accrued a good amount of credibility with taxpayers and voters.”
Who’s at fault
While the district and the union blame Tallahassee, some teachers say the pay problem is local. They blame the district for not prioritizing and appropriating enough for raises, the union for being weak in negotiations. Some teachers say they prefer that the benefits be outlined in the referendum before they vote to raise their own taxes.
At the onset of the recession, some teachers missed out on raises altogether. Federal grants for high performing teachers dried up. State law now ties raises to student performance on standardized tests. Miami-Dade couldn’t keep up with paying out big bucks to thousands of veteran teachers.
“We made some very hard decisions,” said past UTD president Fedrick Ingram, who was recently elected president of the statewide union, the Florida Education Association. “We worked to equalize it as much as we possibly could. There are some people who are unhappy with every negotiation.”
Teachers fear another empty promise.
Roberto Fernandez, a Spanish teacher at Sunset Elementary, has taught for 21 years. After 13 years of teaching night school, which he says cost him his marriage, he invests in property with his father for added income. He said he is voting no on the referendum.
“It’s a psychological thing,” said Fernandez, 43. “The first time I clapped. The second time I clapped. After 20 years, I’m done clapping.”
But in the whirlwind of a polarizing, toss-up midterm election, some teachers see the referendum, no matter how vague or possibly temporary, as their best bet.
“I’m scared in terms of what could happen with the money. I’m afraid of the mismanagement of the money,” said Rodriguez, the teacher at Mas Canosa Middle. “But even having said that, I still think it’s our best chance of getting whatever it is we’re going to get.”
Trust is at stake for teachers who feel spurned.
“If this referendum doesn’t pass I’m definitely going to drop the union,” said Carasco, the teacher whose house was foreclosed on. “I’ll just give myself an $800 raise.”