As legislature for teacher salary increases hang in the balance, we spoke with teachers in Jacksonville working multiple jobs about how they’d be affected by the increase, if at all.
Anitra Aljada, Andrew Mathis and Jack Leon are public school teachers. Each are in different stages of their life and careers, Aljada having taught for four years, Mathis for 27 years and Leon for only six months. Aljada rents an apartment, while Mathis and Leon own homes. They all teach at different schools across Northeast Florida.
But they share one common bond: they can’t afford to live here. So they work second, third, sometimes fourth jobs to make ends meet. And they’re not the only ones.
As legislature for Governor Ron DeSantis’ proposed teacher salary increases hangs in the balance, we spoke with teachers on the First Coast about how they’d be affected by the increase, if at all.
Data compiled by USA TODAY shows that on average, teachers in Jacksonville and other northeast Florida cities are paying more than 40 percent of their post-tax salaries on housing — experts recommend spending no more than 20-30 percent.
“The cost of rent in Jacksonville is climbing while our salaries have remained the same for years,” Aljada, 27, who works as a school counselor at Oakleaf Junior High School in Clay County, said. To supplement, she babysits every weekend and takes odd jobs whenever she can for extra cash. In the past, she’s waited tables. She plans on working as a nanny over the summer to make ends meet.
Data from local counties — Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau, Putnam and St. Johns — shows before taxes, teachers’ starting salaries are around $38,500. The average highest pay is roughly $72,000 while the average median salary is about $46,600. After taxes, the average median teacher’s salary is about $43,400.
But with monthly rent in the city averaging at about $1,477 according to Zillow, teachers say one job often isn’t enough to live comfortably.
The Florida Times-Union asked local teachers to fill out a survey about the need for second jobs. Of the 22 respondents, 19 said it wasn’t possible to live comfortably in Northeast Florida while working solely as a teacher. The other three said “maybe,” a teacher could live comfortably without a second job, but that it would depend on the person’s personal debt, living situation and family status.
“We simply don’t make enough to make ends meet as adults,” Bethany Koch said. She’s been a teacher at Oakleaf High School for three years and works extra jobs as a test proctor and summer school teacher, to name a few.
“It’s probably fine money for someone who is just providing supplemental income, but my husband and I are both teachers and we need second jobs to live the life we want to live. That by no means an extravagant life, but we both have car payments, a mortgage, retirement accounts and a small savings. On top of that we’re trying to pay off student loans.”
The teachers surveyed ranged in status from teaching for less than a year to almost 30 years, but they all voiced concerns about wages versus the cost of living.
Andrew Mathis drives around in a Bold City Brigade T-shirt and a Jacksonville Jaguars hat. He calls it his “every man” uniform and wears it weekly when he works as a Lyft and Uber Eats Driver around his work schedule. He says wearing sports merchandise gives riders something to talk about.
“In my job,” he pauses, “my real job, I have to talk to people all the time. So this is similar.”
Mathis estimates he makes about $15 an hour with Lyft — less than his Duval Schools salary.
At 48-years-old and with almost 30 years experience, he’s at the top of the school district’s salary range now. But just out of school, with a family to take care of and student loan debt, things weren’t as easy. Now, he says he’s making up for lost cash.
“I started teaching in 1993. My salary was $21,000 so I kept a second job of serving,” Mathis said. He was 22 at the time and hasn’t left Duval County Public Schools. The Oceanway Elementary School fourth grade teacher said he could survive these days without the supplement pay, but that he’s still in debt from making a low salary for so many years. Lyft and Uber Eats earnings pay down that debt.
He heads north on Laura Street downtown, following the notifications his phone sends.
“I have debt payoff goals and everything I make goes toward it. But I realize that one reason I have all that debt is because when I started, I made $21,000.”
He turns into the Vale Food Co parking lot in Brooklyn to pick up an order for someone named Tony.
“I feel fortunate because I love my job,” Mathis said. “So I look at my second jobs as a way to keep the job I want, but have extra money for the lifestyle I want, like going to Jaguars games.”
When asked about teachers’ current starting salaries in his district — $39,500 — he said it would be difficult to support a family relying on that income.
“If a person was in the same situation as me with a wife, kids and student debt, it wouldn’t be enough,” Mathis said.
“I think that I’m not saying you can’t decide to live within your means. But at $40k it’s hard. We don’t want just young single people teaching. We don’t want to discourage people from going into the profession. We don’t want somebody that wants to teach — it’s not an easy thing to want to do. We don’t want them to be discouraged because they can’t afford it.”
Duval County Public Schools Spokesman Tracy Pierce acknowledges this.
“Recruiting high-performing people to become great teachers is step one,” he said. “Step two is offering a quality of life and compensation that keeps outstanding teachers in the classroom. As a district, we are working on both of those steps, and funding and compensation are important elements.”
In Florida, only three of the 53 school districts across the state — Putnam, Escambia and Marion Counties — show the percentage of median take-home pay going toward rent at the recommended 20 to 30 percent.
And it’s worse when looking at starting salaries. Statewide, not one school district shows teachers paying less than 30 percent of their salary for rent.
The best case is Putnam County, where teachers being paid starting salaries are paying 31.9% of their salary for rent. The average cost to rent in Putnam County is about $900, the lowest of all the school districts. But Baker County School District teachers have the lowest starting salary locally at $35,850. The average cost to rent there is $1,360.
These disparities are visible throughout the city, with none of the school district’s starting pays correlating directly to that county’s average cost to rent.
In Duval County, the minimum starting page for teachers, before taxes, is $39,500.
That’s around what Jack Leon, who teaches U.S. history at Lavilla School of the Arts, makes — and he says it won’t be going up any time soon.
“The first five years as a teacher, you stay at the same amount of pay,” Leon said. “That’s tough in an ever-changing cost of living and economy.”
Leon, 31, started as a substitute teacher last year before being placed as a long-term substitute at Lavilla — the same middle school he attended himself. He applied to become a teacher months later. He says he loves what he does, but can’t help but worry about his future.
“I don’t see where teachers are valued and that’s, as someone just entering this year, discouraging,” he said. “I enjoy my job, I love the kids, I love my team. I actually went to middle school here. I love giving back to the place that gives to me. The hardest thing has been the fact that the pay is not good.”
To fill in the gaps, the new teacher works for Shipt — a grocery delivery service owned by Target — as well as part time directing music for his Hilliard church in Nassau County. Leon works at the church Wednesday nights and Sundays for 12-plus-hour shifts, leaving Saturday as his only day off.
On Wednesdays, he starts his day at 6 a.m., begins teaching at 8:20, leaves school at 3:30 p.m. and makes the almost 40-mile drive to his church to lead rehearsals. He won’t get home until around 9 p.m. to eat dinner. On Sundays, he’ll make the drive again and work the entire day.
“People say teachers get all these breaks and vacations, but that’s not really true if we’re working other jobs,” he said. “My only day to have a life is Saturday. Because I’m working at the church, I lose my Sundays. As a teacher, that’s a huge thing because Sunday is supposed to be your day to get your life together.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average national salary of a teacher in 2016-2017 was $58,950. And as noted by USA TODAY, that’s slightly less than what the average teacher earned almost two decades ago after adjustments for inflation.
Leon estimates about 15 to 17 percent of his paycheck goes toward paying for his health benefits. He lives with his grandmother, which helps to save on rent, but he pays for utilities and is caring for the 94-year-old.
“It saves me on the rent side, but I literally don’t stop,” he said.
In Florida last school year, the average salary was $46,679. This stagnancy was one of the factors prompting teachers to rally earlier this year.
In January, hundreds of Jacksonville teachers and public education supporters wore red as they headed to Tallahassee by the busload. The group joined thousands of educators from across the state who gathered for the Rally in Tally — one of the largest demonstrations in recent years fighting for improved teaching conditions.
“Teachers make less money now than they did in 2008, yet we are expected to do more than ever before,” Alexander Ingram, who teaches at Darnell-Cookman Middle-High School, said ahead of the protest. “I am going to the rally to raise the issue up on the public agenda, so that the political agenda has no choice but to follow, or leave office.”
Ingram, who teaches civics, government and microeconomics, told the Times-Union he wants to see a 10 percent increase in state funding across the board. But Governor DeSantis is focusing on teachers’ starting salary for now, something the state Education Association has called a Band-Aid.
Duval Teachers United President Terrie Brady said DeSantis’ proposal as it stands could leave thousands of salaries untouched, but admitted it was a step in the right direction.
Still, she said the proposal would also need to expand on who is included in the raise — unsure if guidance counselors, speech pathologists, coaches and other roles would also get a raise or not. Currently, The House’s version of the teacher salary bill would only cover “classroom teachers” as the law defines it, while the Senate’s version includes broader terms, but less money.
“My concern is that the plan will leave out school counselors, ESE support facilitators and other instructional positions that are not classroom based,” Aljada said. “In my role for example, I am considered a teacher and my job requires a master degree, but I may get left out of the raise.”
Something Mathis views as a red flag are the strings potentially attached to DeSantis’ achievement-based raise proposals. He said he was worried that if his bonus program went through, the school district and schools would lose control over how to determine what teachers’ progress looks like.
“The amount of money doesn’t affect me, but from what I understood, the state likes to put more emphasis on test scores for teacher evaluations that I’m uncomfortable with,” the veteran teacher said. “It incentivizes teachers to put efforts into not helping those who need it the most. I don’t want to feel like my job is in jeopardy according to a test that is biased towards students in lower socioeconomic status. I like that my evaluation is based on my principal’s perspective of my job performance.”
As it stands, DeSantis’ proposal for a minimum teacher salary of $47,500 would raise local teachers’ salaries from between 20 to 32 percent depending on the school district.
“As a community, we should seek to do everything possible to make teaching a highly rewarding, highly respected profession,” Pierce with Duval Schools told the Times-Union. “Moving starting salaries to a place competitive with other professions is a beginning. We also need to address compensation for veteran teachers, especially those demonstrating the capability to lead new teachers toward success.”
With the end of the 2020 legislative session soon coming to a close, the clock is ticking for action regarding DeSantis’ teacher salary proposal.
As noted by the Tampa Bay Times, several proposals emerged since the governor’s initial suggestion in October, with the House and Senate adopting their budgets.
But things have been quiet since then and it’s unclear what the final number will look like.
That’s because the House and Senate have a large gap between their budgets, nearly $150 million. According to The Times, the House’s plan would allow six school districts to reach a $50,000 minimum salary and would affect almost 168,000 traditional classroom teachers. Meanwhile, the Senate’s version would impact a larger number of teachers but with smaller raises since it has less money in its budget.
It’s something Jacksonville teachers say they’re all watching unfold closely.
“Just about any legislation that passes is going to help me,” Leon said. “I’m watching what happens to teachers who have been here 20 to 30 years and are only just above that threshold and wondering why they should be making just barely more than a new teacher. If I’m going to make a career of this and this is where I’m going to be, what is it going to look like in 20 to 30 years?”
“If we don’t take care of teachers who have been here forever, where does that put me?” Leon said. “I’m watching to see what the long-term looks like. If a recent college graduate is making only $2,000 less than me, I’m going to have a problem with that.”
Emily Bloch: (904) 359-4083