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Hundreds of students at Hillsborough high schools walk out to protest teacher wage freezes

TAMPA — Hundreds of Hillsborough County high school students walked out of their classes Wednesday morning demanding the school district pay teachers higher wages.

Students at Alonso, Jefferson, Middleton, Robinson and Sickles high schools, many clad in black in a show of solidarity, filtered out of classrooms and gathered outside their respective buildings. Some held signs that said, "Dig deeper, pay my teacher," and, "Praise the raise."

The students remained on campus and most went back to class about 15 minutes later, said Tanya Arja, a spokeswoman for the school district. Principals at each school say they don't plan to discipline students who returned to class, Arja said.

"The administrators walked out with their students to make sure they were safe," Arja said. "The students are still our responsibility."

School officials monitored the demonstrations until students returned to class. No incidents were reported, Arja said.

The demonstrations came a day after about 15 students walked out of class at Strawberry Crest High School for the same cause. Administrators at that school did discipline their students. Several received a day of in-school suspension.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Strawberry Crest students walk out to protest teacher pay

Negotiations with the teachers' union have been tense and time-consuming ever since the summer of 2015, when Superintendent Jeff Eakins, who was brand-new on the job, learned the district was losing tens of millions of dollars each year in its main reserve account.

Eakins quickly identified the teachers' new pay plan as the chief culprit. Salaries and performance bonuses jumped by a combined $77 million between 2013 and 2015, forcing the district to raid both its reserves and a workers compensation account to make the last month's payroll and produce a balanced budget.

Since then, uncertainty has surrounded the pay plan, which gives teachers a $4,000 increase every three years if they get high enough evaluation scores.

The district managed to honor the plan in 2015 and 2016, although its budget officer estimated that doing so cost $17 million each year. Along the way, the district cut its spending on busing and materials; and transferred money in from various funds and accounts to shore up the reserves.

This year, Eakins said, is different. The district is running out of places from which to transfer money. Two out of three bond rating firms have issued negative outlooks, meaning the district is in danger of seeing its credit rating drop. Should that happen, it will be more expensive to borrow money that is needed to build schools in the high-growth suburbs.

Teachers, for their part, say the pay plan is part of a bargain they made when the teaching reforms were implemented in 2010 under a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In agreeing to sign up for the new plan, the teachers gave up some seniority rights and extra compensation for advanced degrees. While the information sheet they were given clearly states that the district can revisit pay rates when money is tight, union leaders argue that the district still spends money on executive salaries and in other ways.

Teachers appreciate the show of the support but the union does not want students to disrupt the school day and has not encouraged them to take do anything that would expose them to disciplinary action, HCTA Exucutive Director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins said Wednesday.

"We certainly are for general activism," Baxter-Jenkins said. "I just think there are ways kids can do it without leaving school, without interrupting the school day. But again, these are kids taking on something they see as wrong and trying to do something about it, and so from the perspective of a parent, I can also say that there's a piece of me that really likes that we have young people that think they can make a change in the world."

This is a developing story. Stay with tampabay.com for updates.

Times staff writers Jeff Solochontact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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