Historic pay increase: Miami teachers vote on multimillion-dollar contract

Joyce Harden, an organizer with United Teachers of Dade, accepts ballots from Misty Jackson, the union steward at William Lehman Elementary in Kendall. UTD tallied ballots from a ratification vote among its teachers Thursday at Miami Jackson Senior High.
Joyce Harden, an organizer with United Teachers of Dade, accepts ballots from Misty Jackson, the union steward at William Lehman Elementary in Kendall. UTD tallied ballots from a ratification vote among its teachers Thursday at Miami Jackson Senior High.

Much of the union staff counting paper ballots by hand and tallying results at Miami Jackson Senior High were knocking on doors, making phone calls and handing out fliers at polling places during election season. With more than $200 million at stake for teachers starved by low wages and high costs of living, the United Teachers of Dade rallied to pass Miami-Dade’s first ever school property tax referendum.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure in November. Now, UTD just needed the teachers they campaigned for to ratify the agreement negotiated with the Miami-Dade County school district to make big pay supplements possible.

The unprecedented compensation package yielded unprecedented results Thursday night. Every update posted on the screen consistently had 90 percent of teachers voting to accept the deal. By the 7 p.m. deadline, ballots were counted for 152 schools out of 346 turned in.

“We’ve never had these kinds of numbers,” said UTD President Karla Hernandez-Mats. “That’s how I know the enthusiasm. We can feel it. It’s been a long time in the making.”

The deal affects 30,000 people in UTD’s bargaining unit, including 19,200 teachers as well as paraprofessionals, campus monitors, clerical workers and substitute teachers. It distributes the referendum supplements ranging from $5,000 to $16,000 based on a teacher’s current salary beginning in July, prioritizing late-career teachers who missed out on large scheduled raises when a previous pay scale ceased in 2015. It also includes an extra 5 percent of a teacher’s daily rate be paid out from January 1, 2019 to June 30, 2019.

The compensation package, however, came with a bitter pill: As for recurring salary adjustments negotiated every year, teachers would see only about 1 percent. Both the district and union blamed the Florida Legislature for the paltry sum, as Miami-Dade received the third-lowest increase out of 67 counties for funding that could be used for teacher raises.

And then there’s this: While the average salary of a Miami-Dade teacher will rise above the national average of $59,660 — a repeated promise on the campaign trail — about two-thirds of Miami-Dade’s teacher workforce will fall below that average. Many mid-career teachers, some with as much as 17 years experience who were caught by the change in the pay scale, are in that figure and will barely make more than an entry-level teacher.

Jackie House, a physical education teacher for special education students at Edison Park K-8 in Little River, has been delivering ballots for union votes for a decade. But this year was a little different, she said.

“My teachers are overwhelmingly positive in favor,” she said. “It’s almost like a joyous occasion.”

But down in Kendall where union membership is low, according to the union steward at William Lehman Elementary, many teachers were among the “no” votes.

“My school is not happy because of the mid-career teachers,” said Misty Jackson, a first- and second-grade teacher. “That range of teacher salaries, they’re not moving, not increasing in pay. Fifteen, 16, 17 years in and they’re just making the $50,000 salary.”

She added, “There’s always a group of teachers that are not as happy. We’re all not happy. We’re struggling. It’s hard as a profession. We love what we do, but we have to beg.”

The celebrated deal for teachers, however, may soon face a challenge from the charter school movement, which circulated critical fliers about the referendum and later said it would vie for referendum dollars for teachers and school security.

Former Florida legislator Ralph Arza, now director of governmental relations for the Florida Charter School Alliance, disregarded the fliers that were circulated, saying there was “no active campaign” from the charter school movement against the referendum.

“We played nice,” he said. “We knew it was going to pass.”

Arza wrote questions for a poll of 403 Miami-Dade residents about the referendum and charter schools. Half said they would support the Legislature and governor “stepping in” on behalf of public charter school students and teachers to ensure that the tax funds are divided equally.

“I think they [legislators] are going to get involved,” Arza told the Miami Herald on Wednesday. “I think they’re going to end up in the courtroom.”

He said a lawsuit against the district wouldn’t come from his organization, but rather from an aggrieved party, like the parent of a charter school student.

According to data obtained by the Florida Department of Education, the average salary for 15,703 charter school teachers in Florida is $41,630. The median salary is $41,000.

For Miami-Dade’s 1,830 charter school teachers, those figures look like $44,995 for the average salary and $43,854 for the median salary. The average salary for all Miami-Dade teachers, traditional and charter, is about $51,000 and the median is around $46,000.

The Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing 186 school police officers, also signed a tentative agreement with the district earlier this week and will hold its ratification vote on Friday. The remainder of the funding from the referendum, 12 percent, went to hiring more police and school safety personnel.

Their deal includes an advance payment of 5 percent, similar to teachers, from January 1, 2019, to June 30. Those who have specialized training would receive 8 percent. In July, those figures would go up to the full referendum supplement, which is 10 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

Both UTD’s and FOP’s deals will have to go before the School Board for official approval.

Colleen Wright returned to the Miami Herald in May 2018 to cover all things education, including Miami-Dade and Broward schools, colleges and universities. The Herald was her first internship before she left her hometown of South Miami to earn a journalism degree from the University of Florida. She previously covered education for the Tampa Bay Times.