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Florida ESP Members Speak Out on Back-to-School Tour

ORLANDO - Wednesday, September 14 - Education Support Professionals in Orlando, Florida, are being crushed financially, caught between state mandated salary cuts and increased health insurance costs. Yet despite their economic plight, student safety is still a major concern.

Those are the messages NEA President Dennis Van Roekel heard from some 60+ Orange County bus drivers who turned out to participate in NEA’s Standing Strong for Students Back-to-School Tour.

The discussion began with drivers sharing the horror stories of driving over-crowded busses and the lack of support many feel they receive in dealing with unruly students.

“We have busses built for 60 students,” said one Association member, “but the state says we should put elementary students three to a seat. That means a 60-passenger bus with almost 80 students. And sixth-graders aren’t the same size as first-graders. Someone’s going to get hurt.”

The situation seems to be compounded by the state’s new so-called merit pay plan, currently being challenged in the courts by NEA’s state affiliate, the Florida Education Association.

Since attendance will be a major factor in the funding for schools, principals from low-performing schools are becoming more reluctant to discipline unruly students for bad behavior while riding the bus as it might discourage attendance.

If sardine-like bus loads weren’t enough, Education Support Professionals in the state are also faced with dire circumstances economically.

Almost two decades ago, Florida was unable to fund a salary increase for public school employees. Rather than provide additional salary, the state legislature decided to reduce the amount employee’s paid into their retirement system. While the plan didn’t increase salaries, the net effect was to increase the take-home pay school employees realized from their salaries at the time.

But successive legislatures never actually paid the contribution amount into the retirement system that was no longer coming from employees, and the bill for law makers short-changing the system has now come due.

Newly elected Florida Governor Rick Scott convinced law makers to pay that bill on the backs of school employees by reinstituting the employee contribution cut those many years ago. The effect is a 3% cut in salaries for every school employee who participates in the state’s retirement program.

“The majority of Florida’s political leaders decided to punish employees instead of taking responsibility for a problem they caused,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “They’ve blamed school employees for having a retirement plan that’s too generous in its benefits. It’s the height of hypocrisy.”

For ESP members, many supporting families on $10 per hour, the result has already been devastating. And for too many, the situation went from devastating to catastrophic with just instituted massive increases in premiums for health insurance.

Member after member shared with Van Roekel the necessity of dropping dental, vision, or even disability insurance coverage in order to pay for increased basic health coverage while also juggling cuts in salary.

And for Education Support Professional used to supplementing their incomes during the summer months with additional jobs, the state’s faltering economy meant that summer jobs weren’t available this year.

Through tearful eyes, one member shared that she had no salary over the summer but couldn’t get food stamps because the state’s review process took so long that the school year started before a decision was made as to her eligibility.

“These employees are getting a raw deal,” says Van Roekel, “and we’re going to fight side-by-side with them to restore the social justice current political leaders have taken from them.”