Brevard students march for better teacher pay

School district superintendent rejects pay raise plan

By Mark Lehman - Reporter, Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon of Florida Today

VIERA, Fla. - At least 50 Brevard County students gathered Friday morning at The Avenue Viera shopping complex before marching to the school board building to express their support for a plan to raise teacher pay, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.

That plan, endorsed by an impartial special magistrate in May, was rejected by school district Superintendent Mark Mullins last week, sparking the student protest.

“When the vote for higher teacher pay went to the superintendent and he declined it, we felt that was very unfair,” said 13-year-old Hayden Mucha, who co-organized the march with fellow McNair Middle School eighth-grader Addisyn Thurn, 12.

“We decided to do a march to show it’s not just the teachers that care, it’s the students and the parents, too,” Mucha said.

Mullins, in a statement accompanying his rejection, maintained that the district simply did not have the budget to absorb a pay hike, a position at odds with the magistrate's findings after examining the district's finances.

Mucha, whose mother has been a Brevard teacher for 23 years, says he sees his mom and her colleagues put not just time into their work, but their own financial resources.

“They spend their own money on stuff and they don’t get the money back,” he said, noting that common out-of-pocket expenditures he’s noticed include school supplies, microwaves, bean bags and specialized seating for the special ed students.

Brevard’s average teacher pay is among the lowest in the state at $46,316, more than $2,100 below the statewide average, according to the latest 2019 figures. Advocates of the pay increases point to the 625 teachers who have left the county in three years, a crisis of teacher retention that has been dubbed a “silent strike."

"The teachers are barely even making a livable wage. So, if we give them a livable wage, it's also benefiting us because we're getting better teachers and better education," Mucha said.

Students like Mucha and Thurn feel the departure of their teachers acutely.

“My culinary teacher at McNair, she left for Georgia last year,” Mucha said, adding that, "My mom’s best friend is moving all the way to Kuwait to get a higher paying job.”

Thurn said that at her elementary school, Robert Lewis Stevenson on Merritt Island, some 15 teachers left because of pay.

“Those were good teachers we could have stayed with,” she said.

While Mucha and Thurn bemoaned the departure of their mentors, they did not fault them for leaving.

“It was sort of letting down the students, but we knew it wasn’t their fault,” Thurn said.

The state of affairs compelled Mucha, who had no experience with organizing, to recruit his friend Thurn, who had previously been involved with various charitable events such as “basket brigade." For the pair, it is their first direct political action.

In Florida, it is illegal for teachers to strike; as such, the duo contacted BFT President Anthony Colucci to make sure that their action would not jeopardize the teachers.

"I am just thrilled to see these students taking action when so many adults have failed to do so," Colucci said. "They know the impact that not having quality teachers has on them as students and I am just thrilled to see them step up and take up the cause."

Colluci separately told Florida Today that he had been contacted by the students and said BFT had no hand in organizing the march. The union was planning on demonstrating the day of the next school board meeting, scheduled for June 24.

The march started around 9 a.m. and proceeded down the sidewalk by Lake Andrews before ending in front of the school board building.

“We really want to remind the school board that it’s the parents and the students that care, too, it’s not just the teachers. It’s affecting us personally and we know people who have left,” Thurn said.

Mucha is hopeful that the school board members vote yes on June 24 and wants every kid to see that they can make a difference, too.

"Everyone was really supportive and I hope that other kids see that," Mucha said.

After the march, Mullins released a statement, saying:

“I commend our students for their respectful voice in affirming their support and interest in our teachers. We agree that teachers need and deserve better compensation. We have not stopped working to enhance compensation throughout this impasse, as evidenced by my desire to return to the negotiating table with the Union. I want nothing more than for our educators to feel respected, valued, and competitively compensated for the incredible work they do on behalf of our students.”

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