SEBRING — Contract negotiations between the School Board of Highlands County and the Highlands County Education Association (county teachers union) have been rescheduled for noon today.

One of the negotiators had a scheduling conflict with the original Wednesday date for the contract talks.

Union negotiator Jim Demchak said the HCEA is hopeful the School Board will provide general fund money to pay all teachers fairly.

The district’s position so far has been no money will be allocated beyond what the state teacher salary allocation provides, he said.

The School Board’s argument is that there will be budget cuts, Demchak said. “It is to our knowledge Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran told the superintendents that there would be no cuts to public education.”

If that is the final outcome, 407 teachers (about 50%) will all be making $44,110, he said.

The School Board has a very healthy fund balance, well above the required 3%, according to Demchak. HCEA’s proposal uses less than 10% of it.

Demchak provided district budget numbers, which rounded off show $40.76 million allocated for salaries in 2019-20, but $38.88 million actually spent for a surplus of $1.88 million.

These numbers are from the district’s budget and annual financial reports to the Florida Department of Education, Demchak said.

There have been many teacher positions cut for this year so there is even more surplus built into the budget, he said.

Demchak noted, these surrounding counties have all settled with the the following teacher base pay: Desoto County — $45,200, Hardee County — $45,200, and Glades County — $45,700.

All added hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide pay levels across the salary schedule so veterans are “not” making base pay, he said.

How can Highlands recruit and retain when they will be the lowest paying district around, Demchak said. He also pointed out that veterans knowing their years of service to Highlands County feel they have no value to the board.

“We hope they make the ethical choice in creating a fair pay scale with our offer in mind, which again is 60% less than usually asked,” he said.

The Highlands District received $1,945,528 in state funding earmarked for raising teacher salaries, particularly the starting teacher salary. The district’s challenge has been that a big increase for new teachers, without a significant increase for veteran teachers, would put the new teacher salary very close to those who have worked many years with the district.

The intent of the teacher pay legislation was to raise the salary of most entry-level teaching positions close to $47,500.

The $500 million teacher pay plan earmarks $400 million of the budget to raise starting-teacher salaries and $100 million to raise veteran teachers’ salaries.