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OPINION: Teacher job cuts might be unfortunate but necessary solution

The Hillsborough County School Board is facing a drop in funding from reduced enrollment for the 2020-21 school year — 7,300 students at $7,600 per student, according to WUSF Public Media — and the board is scrambling to balance its budget this year. 

Low enrollment has forced the board to find the money for the pay increases ordered by Gov. Ron DeSantis, and it’s starting with faculty jobs.

DeSantis signed a bill June 24 that raised the minimum teacher salary to $47,500 from an average of $37,636, making Florida teacher salaries the fifth highest in the nation.

Cutting positions is difficult, but teachers absolutely deserve to be paid more. Although the timing is unfortunate, funds to increase current teacher salaries and cover costs of upgrading schools to work during a pandemic must come from somewhere, and a smaller staff might be the solution.

While the school board’s final decision will be announced Oct. 26, the board already said it plans to reallocate the jobs of hundreds of educators.

In a letter sent to Hillsborough County parents, Superintendent Addison Davis said that the board identified 424 vacant teaching positions that will not be filled next year and 333 positions it plans to eliminate outside of music, art, International Baccalaureate and magnet classes. In doing so, the school board said it expects to let go of fewer than 105 teachers and relocate the rest to nearby schools.

The job cuts would free up approximately $45 million of its $3.2 billion fiscal budget. The cuts are a temporary bandage on what amounts to a $56 million operating deficit in the budget due to reduced enrollment, according to Davis.

Parents and teachers across the county have voiced concerns about the cuts. Many are concerned not only for teachers losing their jobs, but also the students themselves. According to WTSP Tampa Bay, Pierce Middle School teacher Wesley Mejai spoke out against the decision during a protest Oct. 19 at the school.

“I don’t think it’s the right move to do, particularly in the middle of the pandemic, particularly in the middle of a school year,” he said. “I think what’s not being recognized are the students that are going to be impacted, the families of our community are going to be impacted the most.”

While Mejai and other teachers’ concerns are legitimate, student experience should largely remain the same due to reduced enrollment. The schools simply do not require as many teachers right now, even with reduced class sizes of 18-25 students based on grade level compared to the usual 30-35 students per classroom.

The board doesn’t seem to be making these decisions ignorant of its effects. While no one wants to see jobs cut, the superintendent had to find a solution quickly. In the letter sent out, according to WTSP, Davis left parents with a somber but serious message.

“As we make these difficult changes, we remain focused on aligning supports and providing resources for our classrooms while maintaining required class sizes,” he wrote. “Thank you for continuing to partner with us as we achieve our shared vision of creating a world-class learning experience in every school, every classroom, every day.”

It’s hard to approve of the school board’s decision, but if what it is telling the public is true, there isn’t a better alternative. As Florida’s economy continues to open up, one can only hope that this change is not permanent and that counties across the state aren’t forced into more financial situations like this one.