CR teacher at rally

Suzie Martin, a Crystal River teacher and chairwoman of the Florida Education Association Republican Cadre, speaks Monday to the crowd of thousands gathered in front of the Florida Historic Capitol demanding more money for public schools.

Amidst the thousands of educators from across the state who lobbied for change Monday in Tallahassee was Suzie Martin.

The moment wasn’t lost on the Crystal River Middle School teacher and chairwoman of the Florida Education Association Republican Cadre.

The purpose of their mission was simple, Martin said: to press Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature to more than double the nearly $1 billion the governor is proposing for teacher raises and bonuses.

“It was a great experience,” said Martin, who teaches eighth-grade English and journalism. “It was a very dynamic crowd; everyone was on the same mission to let our legislatures that our schools, especially public schools, we are not funded properly. It is becoming more and more difficult to do the things we are required to do with the funding that the districts are getting.”

“I was not nervous. I was super nervous that weekend, when I was trying to finalize what to say. I wanted to say the right thing, not just for me, but for the entire state of Florida. The message, it’s not what I want to say, but what entire Republican Cadre wanted to convey. I wanted to say the right thing for them.  It’s not about Republicans or Democrat, it’s about what is doing right for public school students.”

In November, Gov. DeSantis has made salary increases for teachers the centerpiece of his $91.4 billion budget plan. He is asking lawmakers to approve $600 million to boost the minimum salary of public school teachers to $47,500, which would catapult starting salaries to among the highest in the country. Another $300 million would be distributed based on merit. When the governor unveiled his proposed budget last fall, he declared it the “year of the teacher.”

The governor is strongly supporting Florida's teachers, especially younger ones that face the greatest challenges in the classroom, DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre said. “To suggest otherwise is an unfortunate disconnect with reality.”

But educators statewide say it’s not nearly enough, especially for veteran teachers who wouldn’t benefit from the budget increases.

So on Monday, thousands of school workers from around the state descended upon Florida's Capitol to press Gov. DeSantis and the Legislature to more than double the nearly $1 billion the governor is proposing for teacher raises and bonuses.

Large crowds of demonstrators streamed into the Capitol's main thoroughfare, some hoisting signs beseeching Florida lawmakers to “Fund our Future.”

“It wasn’t just about pay us more; it is getting the capital gains we actually need for our school districts to support legislation that is not fiscally sound,” Martin said. “We don’t have means necessary to do it the right way. All of the technology, the money has to come from somewhere. We’re doing it the best we can with what we have in this district. We have older schools, we have schools that need repairs. Look at the teacher shortage we have statewide.

The state's largest school union said the governor's proposal merely gives the illusion that he is addressing problems that have long plagued public schools, such as understaffing, crumbling facilities and low morale. The union said as many as 2,400 teaching jobs remain unfilled.

"The governor says he wants to raise entry-level pay. We have any veteran teachers out there?" said Fedrick Ingram, the president of the 145,000-member Florida Education Association, to raucous cheers. "We have any custodians and bus drivers, mental health service workers, counselors? The governor's plan does not include you."

Union officials said the governor's proposal is far short of what is needed to restore funding for traditional public schools that was lost in recent decades through budget cuts and diversion to voucher programs and charter schools.

The union is calling on the governor to increase his legislative request to $2.4 billion for the current legislative session and similar amounts annually for the rest of the decade.

The money would be used to fund 10% raises across the board — not only for teachers but also for other school employees.

The Senate Education Committee, which was meeting nearby, approved a bill Monday that called for teacher raises but failed to include details such as a dollar amount.

“This is really a preliminary conversation,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Manny Diaz. “We know this is probably going to be an item that goes all the way through the end of session.”

Diaz acknowledged the complexity of the matter, including the possibility of pay inequities: Veteran teachers may not get pay increases and raises could differ around the state because of the varying cost of living.

House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, questioned the need for Monday's protest: “Teachers, like all Americans, are entitled to petition their government and today we proudly witnessed the First Amendment in action," he said in a text message. 

"While I find it odd that they would choose to protest a governor and legislature that has committed to increasing teacher pay and spent record amounts on K-12 education in recent years, they have every right to do so and their voices were heard.”

Senate Democrats unveiled their own funding proposal Monday along those lines, arguing that the governor's plan ignores veteran educators as well as non-teaching staff. Their plan would allocate the same amount of money proposed by the governor, but would spread the money across all job classifications.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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