Teachers say Miami-Dade has stiffed them $30 million in pay

Shawn Beightol and Thais Alvarez join other teachers in front of the Miami-Dade County School Board building to announce their intent to sue over pay issues.
Shawn Beightol and Thais Alvarez join other teachers in front of the Miami-Dade County School Board building to announce their intent to sue over pay issues. Miami Herald

Sarah Hays is a perfect teacher.

The biology instructor at John A. Ferguson Senior High is up before dawn and works through the evening planning lessons, grading papers and steering her students to top colleges around the country.

For all her hard work, Hays scored 100 percent on her most recent evaluation by Miami-Dade County schools — putting the seven-year veteran in the elite minority of teachers across Florida who earned a “highly effective” rating.

“And you know what it’s worth? Nothing,” she said.

Florida law requires highly effective teachers like Hays to be rewarded with more pay. But two years after the law went into effect, Hays said she’s still waiting for Miami-Dade to award her performance pay.

“I feel taken advantage of,” she said.

A group of Miami-Dade teachers says the state’s largest school district is violating state law when it comes to their pay — stiffing teachers out of $30 million.

Three teachers — Thais Alvarez, Shawn Beightol and Isaac Castineira — recently sent the school district notice that they intend to file a class action suit over the issue. They claim Miami-Dade is not only ignoring performance pay laws, but that district leaders illegally changed the way tenured teachers are paid, too.

“You cannot break the law,” Beightol said.

District officials declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

In just a matter of weeks, the teachers have raised $10,000 online to pay for their legal fees.

Until now, Miami-Dade had been considered a leader in the realm of performance pay.

In the depths of the recession, school districts like Miami-Dade jumped on millions of dollars in grants offered by the U.S. Department of Education. In return for $17 million, the district agreed to evaluate and pay teachers based partly on test scores. Miami-Dade was the first school district in Florida to dole out performance pay.

In 2012 and 2013, district leaders made a show of presenting top-ranked teachers with oversized checks. For a lucky few, bonuses reached an eye-popping $25,000. The median teacher pay in Miami-Dade is $52,000, according to state figures.

“There is no better investment in my mind,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said at the time.

But federal money for the bonuses soon dried up. By then, districts were stuck. Florida lawmakers had already agreed to make performance pay a matter of law.

The law, passed in 2011, did many things: It abolished tenure for new teachers, who would be paid under the performance-based system. But it allowed for veteran teachers to be “grandfathered” — they could keep their tenure and be paid under whatever pay scale was in place by July 1, 2014.

In Miami-Dade, the pay scale at that time called for $6,000 raises for some veteran teachers. That proved problematic because the law calls for teachers on performance pay to get bigger bonuses than tenured teachers. In a district of 23,000 teachers, Miami-Dade faced a potentially huge payout.

In September 2015, union members narrowly approved a new contract, and with it, a new pay scale that slashed pay for teachers who had been waiting for years for a big increases.

Ledis Castilla was one of them. After 19 years in the classroom, the William Lehman Elementary School teacher said she was eligible for a $3,000 raise. But it got cut by more than $1,000 when the new contract was approved in a 62-39 percent vote.

“I’m stuck,” she said.

The school district has said that teacher raises are never guaranteed because contracts are negotiated regularly.

But the teachers who have threatened to sue point to the definition of “grandfathered” in the state law. It says the grandfathered schedule “means the salary schedule or schedules adopted by a district school board before July 1, 2014.”

It’s unclear when — or if — a lawsuit would actually be filed. The teachers have also filed complaints with the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission, and they say those cases need to be decided before taking legal action.

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga