Debit card delay miffs Miami-Dade teachers

State lawmakers took action this year to ensure teachers would have money for classroom supplies before the school year started.

In Miami-Dade County, however, teachers are still waiting for the funds more than a month into the semester.

Educators are just now receiving their state-issued debit cards, which are worth $281 and can be used only for the purchase of classroom supplies. The school district plans to load the cards with money on Friday, Chief Financial Officer Judith Marte said.

The delay has infuriated some teachers, who say they have already paid out of pocket for classroom decorations and supplies.

“We have a big issue with those cards,” said Antonio White, who spent $250 to prepare his classroom at Jose Marti MAST Academy. “I don’t know who came up with the idea of paying us after the school year starts.”

Those who have waited are equally as upset.

“That’s six weeks of school that I have to go without having supplies for my classroom,” teacher Ellen Elias said. “How many other jobs are expected to go six weeks without supplies and be effective?”

Marte said the Miami-Dade district wanted to finalize its teaching corps before distributing the funds. The district employs more than 18,000 teachers. Another 3,000 teachers work at charter schools.

“In an ideal world, we would be able to give the teachers the money so they could buy what they need before school starts,” Marte said. “But it wouldn't make sense in a district this size. We are literally hiring [new teachers] until the day before school starts.”

She added: “You could have had a situation where hundreds of teachers would get a card and not report to work, and we would have to chase them down for refunds.”

The Broward school system is not participating in the debit card program, spokeswoman Tracy Clark said. Instead, the district will use state dollars to reimburse teachers for their purchases.

Florida has helped teachers pay for classroom supplies since 1998.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott spearheaded an effort to provide teachers across Florida with prepaid debit cards. But most school districts opted not to participate because the cards wouldn’t be ready until late September.

State lawmakers tweaked the program this year, allowing districts to divvy out the funds by Aug. 1.

The state disbursed Miami-Dade’s share of the money — about $6 million — on July 9, education department spokesman Joe Follick said.

On Tuesday, some teachers said they still hadn’t received their debit card in the mail. Others said they had tried using theirs in an office supply store, only to have it declined.

Marte said the district sent multiple emails warning teachers not to use the cards before Sept. 26. She pointed out that teachers would be able to use the cards to help pay for projects and special events later in the school year.

But state Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who sponsored the debit card legislation this year, said the program was intended for back-to-school shopping.

“The entire purpose of my bill was to ensure that teachers would have their funded debit cards prior to school starting,” Fresen said. “It’s disappointing to hear that the [Miami-Dade] district dropped the ball on timely access by our teachers.”

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