Sen. Corey Simon and Rep. Jason Shoaf at the legislative delegation meeting Monday. PHOTOS BY WILLIAM SNOWDEN
By WILLIAM SNOWDEN Editor
There was standing-room only as a crowd of citizens, many of them classroom teachers dressed in red shirts, took their concerns about high insurance costs to the Wakulla Legislative delegation meeting to ask for help.
The teachers were there to ask that public school teachers be allowed to access the state insurance plan.
While Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, and Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe, said they were supportive of teachers and would look for solutions, it wasn’t clear that what teachers are asking for is possible.
As Shoaf noted, the state government spends hundreds of millions of dollars to pay to subsidize the insurance of state employees. “The rates aren’t lower because there’s a bigger pool,” he said, “but because they’re subsidized.” He estimated it could potentially cost billions of dollars for the state to add teachers. School board member Laura Lawhon, a former teacher, was the the last person to speak at the two-hour long meeting and said she had spoken with someone she described as a math whiz who had come to same conclusion – that it would cost the state billions to add teachers. Instead, she said, if teachers were unable to go under the umbrella of state insurance, perhaps there could be some special appropriation by the Legislature for school districts like Wakulla that are struggling with higher insurance premiums.
The commission meeting room was standing-room only for Monday night’s legislative delegation, seen from behind the dais where Rep. Shoaf and Sen. Simon listened to local concerns.
Teacher after teacher – and supporters of teachers – came forward to plea for help from the legislators. School board chair Melisa Taylor indicated the school board’s support for Gov. Ron DeSantis’s proposed $200 million increase for school funding, and said the issue was how to get more money into the hands of teachers.
At same time, Taylor added, increases in the cost of insurance have meant “no real change in the take-home pay for teachers.” Superintendent Bobby Pearce acknowledged that the rising cost of insurance is hurting the district, and adding to the local teacher shortage. One teacher, Bill Peck, told the legislators that if given a college classroom of 30 education students, he could persuade 20 to come to Wakulla to teach. The problem would be when discussing benefits, such as insurance. “The teacher benefit package is more of a hardship,” he said.
Teachers described the difficulty of paying $1,200 a month for a family insurance plan that is one-third of their salary.
One teacher, Dina Davis, noted that for a custodian with family insurance, it would leave them with about $943 in pay to get through the rest of the month – leaving some employees with no option but to take second or third jobs to try to get by.
Davis, a 12-year veteran educator, also raised the issue that new minimum pay requirements set by the state for first-year teachers do not include pay increases for experienced teachers like her. While the state had mandated districts reach $47,000 for starting teacher pay, currently Wakulla has managed to get to $45,300.
Another veteran teacher, Sandy Byars, who has been at Wakulla Middle School for 31 years, said a new teacher makes practically as much as she does. Byars also noted that her monthly insurance premium is more than her mortgage payment. Another teacher, Amber Stanley noted that some teachers have left Wakulla for higher pay: commuting to Leon County will get you $47,000 in salary and insurance that’s $500 a month. In Franklin County, insurance is $438 a month for Capital Health Plan. Teachers at Florida High, which is under Florida State University, pay only $180 for insurance.
Laney Smith, a senior at Wakulla High, recounted lessons she’s learned from her teachers and said she polled her teachers to find their biggest problems. She said the top three were high insurance, not feeling supported, and paying out-of-pocket for 90% of their classroom supplies. Teacher Desiree´ Wishart asked legislators, “Why can’t you make educators a priority?”
Jennifer Redfern, a teacher at Shadeville and president of the Wakulla County Teachers Association, the local union, asked for increased pay for teachers. Shoaf asked Redfern which she would choose – higher pay or lower insurance?
Redfern answered that the union usually chooses higher pay because half of employees don’t take the insurance. One teacher, Amanda Gaines, said her family was struggling with the high insurance and decided to go without. She questioned why it is that her co-pay remained the same as when she had insurance – same $75 for a doctor visit, same prices at the pharmacy – and what insurance was paying for. She did express concern if she suffered from a major illness.
Another teacher, Deirdre Walker, said she felt compelled to speak because four teachers in the room were her former students who graduated from Wakulla and then came back to teach. It was emotional, she said, to see “my kids” as she called them need to leave to make a living. Another matter discussed was the Wakulla County Airport, with several Tarpine residents complaining that they were disappointed to hear a bill by Rep. Shoaf hadn’t been filed.
The Wakulla Airport, which is a simple grass airstrip, is lumped in with larger airports in FAA requirements for noise studies that could potentially cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – money which Wakulla County commissioners are reluctant to pay. The solution has been for the county airport to be removed from those requirements.
Shoaf answered that he had a good conversation with the state Department of Transportation and said he believes it will be possible to resolve the issue “without passing a new law.”
The 2023 Legislative session is scheduled to begin on March 7.