By Steve Gunn

BARTOW, Fla. – Polk County Public Schools have a new financial problem that may require the elimination of nearly 200 teaching positions, the reduction in the number of classes in district high schools, and cuts to bus routes and the number of bus drivers.

prioritiesstraightWhy is this happening?

Because the district has to pay for a negotiated raise for union teachers, and an anticipated raise for union support staff, according to the Polk County Ledger.

That leads to a fundamental question – do schools exist first and foremost for children, or for veteran employees who demand raises every year?  In this case the employees will get their salary adjustment, but the students will pay the price.

It should be the other way around. Student needs should always come first, and extras for adults should be lower on the priority list.

The district has to eliminate between $16 and $18 million from its budget to pay for the employee raises, according to the news report. The school district is the largest employer in Polk County, with more than 13,000 employees (more than half of them teachers), so it’s no surprise that wage adjustments will cost a lot of money.

The district and teachers union agreed to increase the size of automatic, annual “step” increases for teachers in the fall. While all returning teachers have traditionally received annual raises, they will be larger in the future.

For instance, first-year teacher salaries will increase from $35,000 to $35,750, according to the news report. The salary for a fifth-year teacher will increase from $36,273 to $38,750. Those types of increases will be given to most teachers as they climb the salary “step” ladder every year.

The school board has imposed a hiring freeze, beginning Friday, to help cover the cost of the raise. Open positions will be covered by temporary employees for the rest of the academic year.

District administrators have proposed eliminating 190 teachers as part of the budget-balancing plan. In most districts, layoffs target the youngest teachers, even as veteran teachers receive salary increases.

There is also talk of decreasing the daily high school class schedule from seven class periods to six and trimming student transportation services.

Ironically, the president of the local teachers union is critical of the proposed budget cuts.

“I’m concerned we are making decisions without the evidence in place,” Polk County Education Association President Marianne Copoziello told the newspaper. “I think there are additional considerations that can be made.”

They could start by postponing the unaffordable raise that the union negotiated for teachers. It seems clear that none of the proposed cuts would be necessary if more money didn’t have to be pumped into the ever-expanding labor budget.

But hey, there are winners and losers in everything. In this case the employees win and the students get the short end of the stick. The entire story is a bad commentary on the mentality of this district.

The school board is expected to discuss specifics about the cost-cutting plan at its Jan. 23 meeting.

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