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

Most Polk County Public Schools employees will see a raise in the upcoming school year, with teachers getting a bump to ensure veteran instructors earn more than their beginning peers.

Three years ago, the state mandated that all first-year teachers earn $47,500 a year. Polk County has slowly creeped up to that level, but that left teachers with one to a dozen years of experience earning the same pay as someone just starting their career.

The increase was discussed during the School Board’s special work session on the district’s preliminary general funds budget, with the total budget scheduled this year to be more than $2.4 billion. The district called a special work session to go over multiple legislative changes made this year.

The state gives all 67 county school districts base funding through the Florida Education Finance Program for specific things, called categoricals, including money for guardians or police officers, special education needs, transportation and teachers’ salaries. They calculate the funding need based on the number of students in the district.

The exact amount of the raises were not available, but with the budget line item established, that will come next. The district has been prioritizing pay to recruit, retain and improve morale among teachers.

District spokesman Kyle Kennedy said PCPS has “approximately 7,000 teachers, and about 750 PCPS teachers were new to the profession in 2022-23.”

The minimum pay in 2022-23 was $47,500 for beginning teachers and those with up to 12 years of experience. One with 20 years on the job earned a base rate of $52,035.

There are bonuses for additional education. Teachers with master’s degrees earn an extra $3,162 each year and those with doctorates get $6,776. Specialists can receive an extra $4,517 annually.

Teachers can also get supplements of $500 to $4,500 a year for taking on additional responsibilities like coaching a sport or advising a club. For example, yearbook sponsors get $1,200 annually. An assistant high school soccer coach receives $1,800 a year.

In neighboring Hillsborough County, the starting pay is $47,501 and remains that through year seven. Teachers going into their 10th year receive $50,201 and those with 20 years receive $63,001. The maximum salary is $68,001.

In Osceola County, teachers start at $48,500 and go up to $48,700 in their fifth year. By year 10, they earn $48,950 and by year 20, $49,450. The maximum amount in Osceola is $70,950.

The state is sending Polk more than $689 million for its base funding, $31.1 million of which had to be used to maintain the starting pay of $47,500 and $9.7 million of which had to be used for raises for other teachers.

Although it still pays less than the state average, recent pay improvements have helped Polk County make its salaries more competitive within the state, and with other professions. During the 2021-2022 school year, Polk’s median teacher pay ranked 24th out of 67 counties.

Christy Durham McCullough, an agriculture teacher in her 21st year in Polk County, said she is glad the district is able to pay veteran teachers more than someone in their first year.

“Now it is time to show the veterans their worth,” Durham McCullough said. “I am grateful for the way both parties are working hard for a solution and that we will actually see the money from the beginning of the year.”

The district also uses a half-cent sales tax to fund building projects and a property tax to contribute to its budget — what’s known as the required local effort. The state sets the millage rate the school district must use.

However, overall, Florida teachers are among the lowest-paid in the nation.

According to the National Education Association, when Gov. Ron DeSantis took office, Florida was ranked 47th out of 50 states for teacher salaries. It now ranks 48th.

Polk’s per-pupil spending lags behind other counties

While teacher pay is improving, relative to other counties, Polk County still lags behind other districts in terms of its spending per pupil.

In the 2022-2023 school year, Polk County had 117,725 students in public and charter schools (which receive public school funding, but are run by private entities, sometimes for a profit). 

This year, PCPS is projected to have an enrollment of 123,541 — an increase of 5,814 students. District officials expect an increase of 3,000 students in its more than 150 regular public schools. Charter schools are expected to add almost 1,050 students. And private schools — using the new vouchers-for-all program — are projected to serve about 1,800 students countywide.

Last year’s per-pupil funding in Polk County averaged $7,976 — below the state average of $8,217 and far below Monroe County’s $11,403. Polk County ranked 55th among the state’s 67 school districts for per-pupil funding, with Hendry County at the bottom with $7,335.

The county’s ranking is unlikely to change significantly in the coming year. In addition to prioritizing pay raises, the district is losing a stream of revenue.

The state recently eliminated something known as compression funding — which provided extra money to interior or smaller counties that don’t have the high property taxes that most Florida coastal communities have.  Last year, Polk received $6.8 million that it won’t be getting this year.


Health insurance

The Polk County School Board is also discussing contributing another $100 per employee to its employees’ health insurance fund to offset last year’s costs.

PCPS has more than 13,000 employees — one of the largest employers in the county — and it is self-insured, with the district picking up all the costs for coverage of every employee.  It is one of the few perks the district can offer its employees and it includes two free health clinics, along with payment of major medical issues, like diabetes, cancer, and surgeries. It provides Blue Cross Blue Shield/Florida Blue to employees at no cost to the employees.

The district paid out $20 million in the last year two years, including the costs of long hospital stays for COVID patients. By adding another $100 per employee — which PCPS Superintendent Frederick Heid emphasized will not come of out of employees’ pockets — it would offset that.

Heid told the board he is determined to bring down healthcare costs so the money can be spent in classrooms for student learning and on salaries for all employees.

“This board has historically been committed to covering all insurance costs, because we were not providing commensurate raises and it doesn’t make sense to pass the cost on to employees … So I understand, appreciate, (and) respect the board’s position on that,” Heid said. “We will have a solution, or some options to explore and begin to implement because we’re just in the last two years, we’ve spent over $20 million subsidizing our insurance policy, and that’s a good thing for our employees.”

He said as a large employer, they should have better bargaining power and more leverage with insurance companies.

“That’s why we were talking to other counties,” Heid said. “Osceola completely restructured their plan and has already realized significant savings. And so we’re looking at that group — the consulting group that they brought in — and we’re looking at all options.”

Heid also said that as the district continues negotiations with the teachers union and the union that represents staff and other employees, he wants it noted that this contribution is in addition to their pay raises.

“I think that’s important and that commitment on behalf of the board is important for us to continue to fulfill, but we need to find a better policy and a better strategy moving forward because we can’t keep having our costs increase the way they have been increasing,” Heid said.

District office reorganization

Chief of Staff Jason Pitts discussed a proposed massive reorganization of the district office, including adding, changing the titles of and/or providing pay raises for 97 positions, at a cost of $2.5 million.

“So this year is an opportunity to try to start getting that support that’s needed at the district office that we have not had over the last few years,” Pitts said, noting a massive influx of students in Polk County in recent years. “Looking back at the past three years and going into this year, we’ve increased students by 18,000, 19,000 extra students, which is an 8% to 10% increase. And if you go back to the past 13 years, that’s when the recession started, we’ve grown over 30,000 students for a 34% increase.”

The exceptional student education department is one that is being reorganized. Heid said he is going to eliminate a longstanding practice of having special education teachers, who are legally mandated to work with students with individual education plans, serve as substitute teachers.

“There’s something that I’m gonna put out to our schools here in the very near future that basically is going to say ESE staff are no longer available to cover classrooms,” Heid said. “They cannot be pulled from providing services to students, because we are now losing social instructional or so much support time.”

One new position Pitts is asking to add: director of media services.

“As you all know, that area has become a hotbed — the state statutes regarding library books has brought this need,” said Pitts. “With the director position being added, it’s going to cost an additional $71,000 to the general fund.”

Like multiple counties throughout the state and nation, Polk County has dealt with complaints regarding what some say are inappropriate books in school libraries, which forced district officials to shift personnel and resources to handle those complaints and review books in the last 18 months. Another appeal of a complaint is currently pending.

The School Board is set to vote on the matter at a budget hearing on July 25th.

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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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