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Hillsborough says its teachers are well-paid; the teachers say it’s not true. Who’s right?

TAMPA — Seeking to show that Hillsborough County school officials waste money that could go to teacher raises, union director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins talked about highly paid administrators.

She talked about legal fees paid to outside firms when in-house attorneys would be cheaper.

She talked about more than $6 million paid to a learning center for struggling high school students, which resulted in only 42 graduations in three years.

"And then, oh by the way, (the center) suddenly went out of business," she said.

But, after almost each example, an attorney for the school district asked: Hasn’t the money already been spent?

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough — No way we can afford teacher raises this year

Sure it has, Baxter-Jenkins told Andrew McLaughlin, of the Stearns Weaver Miller law firm. "Every minute you all are here, you’re taking money out of a teacher’s pocket."

Appearing before a special magistrate Wednesday, Baxter-Jenkins tried to use examples of extravagance to prove that, if they wanted to, district leaders could pay teachers according to a schedule they adopted in 2013.

Instead, she said, the district is claiming it must choose between taking care of its teachers or its physical assets, "as if there’s no other money in this budget and it’s a zero sum game."

She called the tactic "a public relations ploy that is about pitting parents who want air conditioning for their kids against teachers who would like their salary schedule."

The two sides offered contradicting studies that compared Hillsborough teachers’ earnings with those from other districts.

The district’s account showed they are among the most highly paid. The union’s study, which also factored in Hillsborough’s slightly longer work day and the area’s cost of living, showed their hourly earnings are below average.

They also offered differing opinions on whether the district risks a lower credit rating — and higher borrowing costs — if it continues to deplete reserve accounts to cover ongoing expenses such as payroll.

And in a move that angered some teachers, the district made a case that, although they might forego roughly $17 million in raises, they are getting an almost equal amount in Best and Brightest awards from the state.

An opinion from Special Magistrate Mark Lurie, expected in the coming weeks, is nonbinding. But the prevailing side can use it to bolster public opinion in what has been a contentious battle.

There was no movement this year in teacher pay, and negotiations have been at an impasse since December.

As most Hillsborough teachers now get $4,000 raises every three years, roughly a third of the workforce was hit hard by the freeze.

Brittni Wegmann, an elementary art teacher, testified Wednesday about her situation: She got an educational reimbursement supplement, which is temporary, to pay the cost of her master’s degree when she was hired in 2013. "Now I’m in this fourth year, not earning any kind of increase, and I’ve lost my supplement," she said. Essentially, she is $3,387 behind.

READ THE GRADEBOOK: The talk of Florida education

Wegmann did acknowledge, under questioning, that when the district switched to its new pay plan in 2014, she got a raise.

In closing arguments, Baxter-Jenkins warned that many teachers are demoralized by the district’s position. "It has an impact on their morale," she said. "And there is no doubt that when employees are not treated fairly, that has an impact on how well they can serve the students."

Janet McEnery, another Stearns Weaver attorney for the district, said the money simply is not there, and the union was not able to prove otherwise. Reserves were "drained," she said, as the district weathered a full three-year cycle of raises.

"The district is at a crossroads this year, and the previous path is not sustainable," McEnery said.

"Based on all that we have heard, there is no expectation that we can receive more state funding in the future to cover any expected shortfall. The district needs a pause this year."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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