Kindergarten readiness students work on shapes and colors at Crystal Lake Elementary.
Kindergarten readiness students work on shapes and colors at Crystal Lake Elementary. | Polk County Public Schools

Word went out before Tuesday’s Polk County School Board meeting that across-the-board pay raises for teachers, paraprofessionals and some staff would not be in their November paychecks and will instead be distributed in the middle or end of December.

That has some employees dismayed and angry.

“Our teachers, our peer educators, our secretaries show up every day and put all students first — we’re on the front line doing the work and we expect our district to have our back and prioritize us getting the money that we’ve already earned,” Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum said during Tuesday night’s School Board meeting. “There has to be a better way to do this. And we are asking for a better way to do this. And so if there’s a middle ground that we can reach before Dec. 15, before we leave for winter break, we are asking for that so that we can get some kind of money in people’s hands before they go on Christmas break and on winter holiday.”

The district’s negotiating team and the PEA bargaining unit agreed on the contract, including raises for teachers, two months ago.  In October, the PEA membership (which is about half of the district’s teaching staff) overwhelmingly ratified the contract and the School Board approved it.

In the last two years, Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid has not only sent his bargaining team into meetings with PEA, he has attended the bargaining sessions personally — something his predecessor, Jacqueline Byrd, never did. The two sides working together have secured three raises in under two years. Heid seemed to be caught off guard on Tuesday.

“This board was told on Oct. 24 that we needed to approve back-to-back, so that we can issue payments in December — not in November, but in December — and so the team has been adamant that, while they said they would strive to get payroll done in November, there was never a commitment to that effect,” Heid said. “We remain committed to try to go as quickly as we can. The problems that we’ve run into in the past, however, when we’ve tried to do this expeditiously, because we end up issuing over-payments or underpayments to staff, which frustrates them even further.”

Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Fred Heid in September 2023. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

The team has been adamant that, while they said they would strive to get payroll done in November, there was never a commitment to that effect.”

Pcps superintendent Frederick heid

In the Oct. 24 board work session, a video shows Heid saying the raises would be issued before teachers and staff left for the winter holiday.

“The goal, as always, is … to get approval for a ratified contract so that payroll can process all the payments to all employee groups affected by this contract prior to the winter holiday break,” Heid said. “And so this would guarantee, if approved by the board, it would guarantee that we would be allowed to address and have an adequate timeline for payroll… So we do anticipate that with board approval it would allow us to move forward and process those payments prior to winter break.”

Although newer employees are paid twice a month, many longtime teachers get monthly checks. So while some might receive payments on Dec. 15, many won’t get their raises until Dec. 29.

No payroll system updates in 12 years

Anne Pasco is the assistant superintendent of IT. She acknowledged that she told PEA officials verbally outside of the negotiating room that her payroll system would be updated by Thanksgiving. She told LkldNow that she also explained to PEA officials that Chief of Staff Jason Pitts and Associate Superintendent of Human Resources Ben Warren were the lead negotiators and responsible for when the pay raises would be issued.

“Now I feel some responsibility about this because I was asked outside of negotiations — and that is my lesson learned — could we have this system ready by Thanksgiving? And I said yes,” Pasco said. “And I stand by that.”

Pasco explained that her staff has been working weekends and 12-hour days to enter new salaries for the district’s 14,000 employees. The school district is the second largest employer in Polk County behind Publix. But, she added, the district’s payroll system has not been updated since 2011.

“The reality is this: we are a small IT shop,” Pasco said. “Our business process services has … six total staff members in order to accomplish what we have been asked.”

Pasco said they can process the raises in one of two ways: They can let staff see how their paychecks will look before issuing them in order to correct any errors or issue the paychecks without double-checking and risk over- or underpaying staff, further angering them.

“We can push that up earlier. However, if it is pushed up earlier, we cannot give you any confidence that we would have had time to do error checking,” she said. “Once you overpay someone in a situation, it’s hard to get that money back. And our money needs to go for what students need in order to learn and we need to streamline those systems so that people have fidelity and trust in what we’re doing. That is what we’re trying to do.”

‘Not a one-time problem,’ say frustrated teachers

Veteran teacher Bob Nickell, who is a special education inclusion teacher at Boone Middle School in Poinciana, said this is not the first problem with payroll.

“This latest payroll fiasco is just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Nickell wrote in a Facebook message to LkldNow. “Teachers are supposed to get (memorandum of understanding increases), stipends, and supplements. This year, those have never been paid when they used to be paid. They’re a month or two late and it takes pressure from Stephanie (to get them). I have never seen teachers this angry.”

“I have never seen teachers this angry.”

Bob Nickell, special education teacher at Boone Middle school

Natalie Cole, a history teacher at Winter Haven High School, called the situation “beyond frustrating.”

“Teachers, paraprofessionals, and ESP were excited about that long overdue and still insufficient raise and were counting on that money to help out with Christmas expenses,” said Cole, who has taught for 14 years. “This isn’t just a one-time problem with paychecks now. There have been systematic issues with teachers getting their pay on time for things like extra period pay … Our bonus last month, that was bargained three years ago, was supposed to be paid in October, but they ‘forgot’ about it and decided to pay it this month. They forgot about one last June and decided to pay us a month late.”

Cole said she filed a grievance last year against the payroll department because her money was not received on time.

Cole and Yocum encouraged frustrated teachers to join the teacher’s union, which advocates on their behalf.

“The district knows they’re only negotiating with half of their employees in the union membership,” Cole said. “I’m hoping educators and secretaries direct their anger at the right people and that is the district and take action by joining their union to speak in solidarity.”

School board members defend Heid

Kay Fields and Lori Cunningham, the two longest-serving School Board members spoke in support of Heid and district staff.

“I want to say to say you and I have not agreed on a lot of things. And it is what it is. But I will say from my experience, whenever there’s been a concern and I’ve gotten to the superintendent, he has listened and nine times out of 10 he’s addressed the issue,” Fields said of Heid. “And I think ultimately you want what’s best for the for the employees and your team.”

Cunningham said she is proud of the teamwork that district staff and the union have done to get to the point of raises.

“I just want to say, golly, it’s so hard,” Cunningham said before addressing Yocum’s statement during public comments. “I’m shocked to hear that she’ll come up to the podium after never mentioning anything or discussing anything with our team. That’s so frustrating to me. If you have a problem don’t come before us in a public setting. Please, the communication lines are open between both reach out.”

But the teacher and staff raise was not the only payroll issue discussed at the School Board meeting.

Other pay-related concerns

Liza Santana is a new-to-the-district fifth-grade English Language Arts teacher. She was hired before taking and passing her subject area exam, which she has since done.  But she is still being paid at a substitute-teacher rate.

“I found out today that I would be only getting paid $1,400 a month, which is an insane, unlivable wage,” Santana said. “Since I’ve been hired I feel like there’s been nothing but issues with my payroll.”

She said she tried multiple times to reach someone to help her change the bank account to which her pay would be deposited, to no avail, and her first paycheck went to a closed account. She finally got someone at the district to deposit it into the correct account.

“I feel like the only reason I did get paid timely was because I demanded that they pay me — I told them I do not work for free, the same way none of you work for free,” said Santana, who lives in Haines City. “I love what I do. My kids’ scores have gone up. I have the kids that they told me were the worst of the worst. They were unmanageable. Maybe it’s the Puerto Rican New Yorker in me. I don’t know what it is, but these kids love me and I love them back, but I can’t do it all for $1,400 a month, guys. ”

Santana said she had actually met with her School Board representative to say that she was going to quit, that she made more money in customer service work.

“If I have to jump through obstacles for you to prove that I want to be here, you should jump into obstacles to prove that you want to keep me,” she said. “Because before I even knew this meeting was going to happen, I had walked into my representative’s office and said, ‘I’m gonna quit.’ I made more money doing customer service. I didn’t get into teaching for the money, but I can’t live off of this. And I feel like if I don’t have a district that wants to communicate with me, why do I want to communicate with them? Why do I have to keep proving to my district that I deserve to be paid something that I deserve? To not have to choose between feeding my cats or washing laundry?”

Heid had Associate Superintendent of Human Resources Warren personally meet with Santana when she finished making her remarks.

Correction: This story has been updated. Anne Pasco told PEA officials that the payroll computer system would be updated by Thanksgiving, but did not say that pay raises would be included in November paychecks.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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