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Published in Print: May 14, 2003, as Age Discrimination at Issue In Florida

Age Discrimination at Issue In Florida

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Tired of waiting for their Florida school district to stop favoring new hires in its pay policy, a group of Pinellas County teachers has filed an age-discrimination complaint with the state.

The policy the teachers are protesting arose as the direct result of a change in state law. Legislators mandated in 2001 that teachers hired after July 1 of that year get salary-schedule credit for all their years of public school teaching. Proponents saw it as a way to attract more teachers to Florida from other states, because in many districts nationwide and in Florida, teachers can transfer only some of their experience.

But the law also created the possibility that equally educated and experienced teachers within a particular district would be paid different amounts, depending on whether they were hired before or after the law went into effect.

In Pinellas County, where the old rules dictated that teachers were paid for up to eight years of experience outside the district, "teachers with less experience are making more money just because of their hire date," said David J. Linesch, an employment-law attorney who is representing a group of about 40 teachers who have signed on to the complaint.

He said the complaint to the Florida Commission on Human Relations hinges on age discrimination because older teachers are typically the ones who have lost out on the additional pay.

State Micromanagement?

Joyce E. Bethea, a librarian at Safety Harbor Middle School who is leading the group, said that at first she and others believed that the 110,000- student district, which includes the city of St. Petersburg, would change the rules.

"We've waited and we've listened, and we've had faith after being told [the existing situation] is not fair by union representatives and by school board members and administrators," the 51-year-old teacher said.

David J. Linesch

Meanwhile, the neighboring, 175,000-student Hillsborough County district is spending a projected $4.5 million this year in the second of two phase-in years to pay teachers hired before July 1, 2001, on par, based on experience, with those hired after.

Ms. Bethea hopes her group's legal action—which some say is a long shot—will push the issue to the fore in Pinellas County. At least seven of Florida's 67 school districts, which are coterminous with counties, pay all teachers for their prior experience, she said.

Officials of both the Pinellas district and the local teachers' union say the immediate issue is money.

"We're looking at a very minimal increase for teachers' salaries to begin with" because of the fiscal crisis facing the state and districts, said Ron F. Stone, an associate superintendent and the district's chief negotiator. "We're trying to find a way to phase in [the raises]."

Mr. Stone said about 420 of the district's roughly 8,000 teachers would benefit from a change in the rules on out-of-district experience by amounts ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $10,000 annually, plus higher retirement-fund contributions.

The cost to the district would be about $1.9 million in the first year.

But the broader problem, the officials contend, is the Florida legislature's penchant for micromanaging districts, as exhibited in the 2001 legislation.

"It's a bad law," said Jade F. Moore, the executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. Pinellas County needs to hire fewer new teachers than do fast-growing counties like Hillsborough, he said, and should not have to spend money to lure people from elsewhere.

The situation the law created is unfair and demoralizing, he added.

Vol. 22, Issue 36, Page 10

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