Escambia Teachers Plea for Equity

by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

Stalled negotiations are rebooting today between the Escambia County School District and the teachers’ union. During a Tuesday evening meeting of the Escambia County School Board, teachers pressed their case with officials for a higher wage increase for experienced employees. They stressed the exceptional strains on their profession that are being presented by the pandemic.

“I think the board needs to know how critically low morale is for teachers around the district,” said Dory Nickerson, who has taught with the district for seven years. “This year has left us exhausted.”

Nickerson joined other teachers in telling the school board that after working through coronavirus logistics this year — requiring the incorporation of online learning and the navigation of on-campus safety protocol — that teachers perceived the district’s salary negotiation position the equivalent of “getting kicked while we’re already down.”

Laura Hobbs, a media specialist with the district and the Escambia County School Librarian Association president, told board members that the moment demanded action rather than empty rhetoric.

“We want to hear ‘we will,’” she said. “Not ‘we want to’ not ‘we’d like to ‘— ‘we will.’”

“Despite health risks, we returned and have been here since August,” Hobbs said. “This has been the toughest year for all of your employees.”

Hobbs said she was glad to see that the district was returning to the negotiating table on Wednesday and hoped it was to “explore ways to meet our needs and not merely responding to the Pensacola News Journal article from last week.”

The essential sticking point of the contract negotiations is the amount of salary increase afforded to longtime teachers. Facing a new state law that sets the minimum pay for starting teachers at $43,500, the district is looking to rework its payment schedules, resulting in new teachers receiving a significant pay bump — around 14 percent — at the cost of more experienced teachers receiving much less of an increase.

Hobbs told the school board that all teachers should be receiving that higher pay bump.

“If you give everyone a 14 percent raise and it’s sustainable, that’s the best plan,” she said, adding that if such a move weren’t financially sustainable, the board should reassess the district’s budget and get “creative.”

While the teachers and their supporters who spoke at Tuesday’s school board meeting were glad to see new teachers’ salary being brought up to the new minimum, they said that not providing longtime teachers with a corresponding increase felt like those teachers were being “shortchanged.”

Patricia Rockwell, a fifth-grade teacher at Perry Pass Elementary, 26 years deep into her career, pointed out that longtime teachers have more classroom experience and numerous hours of continued education, training, and certifications.

“Every year, we become better teachers,” Rockwell said.

The teachers also noted how the pandemic’s stress has led some teachers to retire early or leave the profession and said that the district’s failure to offer equitable pay for experienced teachers would lead to additional departures.

“How many people do we have to lose to understand this?” asked middle school teacher Chelsea Alberta.

Alberta also stressed the unprecedented challenge presented this academic year — “I don’t have a word for how tired we all are” — and said the appropriate avenue for appreciation would be for the district to offer across the board salary jumps.

“How much a professional is valued isn’t shown by platitudes and praise,” she said. “They are shown by how much they are paid.”