Despite state-wide reporting to the contrary, educators in Florida began receiving $1,000 checks in the mail from Governor Desantis signed by him along with a letter from him thanking them. Florida stated earlier that the checks would not have the Governor’s seal on them, but it was unclear if they would contain his signature. The personal letters featured the Governor’s Seal as well as signature. The checks featured the seal of the Department of Education and also the Governor’s signature.
Instead of giving the money directly to state and local governments to send directly to employees’ accounts, the state is paid a private company, Jacksonville-based Fidelity Investment Services, $3.6 million to write the checks and mail them to recipients.
In a statement, Department of Economic Opportunity spokesperson Emilie Oglesby said the state discussed how to disburse the funds with local governments, and “concerns were raised … due to the potential for delays in payment processing.”
The Florida Education Association, a union representing teachers and others, has disputed that, saying that school districts would have already sent the money out.
The U.S. Department of Education recently sent a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran taking issue with how the state is using federal COVID-19 relief money. According to the letter, Florida issuing the bonuses is a violation of the requirements for spending the federal money issued to the state. Under the American Rescue Plan, education relief funds must help address student learning loss brought on by the pandemic through “evidence-based interventions.”
“The U.S. Department of Education has said that there are certain guidelines that have to be followed when using these federal stimulus dollars in our schools,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association.
“And it could be for the additional work that our teachers and staff have done, but it has to be followed in the right procedure. They have to use the right funds, they have to make sure they’re spending it the right way, it has to be geared towards making sure students are learning.”
Instead of providing funds to school districts, the state plans to give checks directly to employees.
“We don’t work for the state, we work for the local school district,” Spar said. “So to say that this money should come from the state is…interesting.”
The federal letter questioned why Florida officials are holding back relief money from districts.
According to the FEA, that process is creating unnecessary delays.
“Not only has it delayed the payments to teachers and to the teachers who qualify, but it has also put a burden on school districts, because they were told to quickly turn around and give the Department of Education a list of all the qualifying teachers so that (they) can issue the check,” Spar said.
The money was intended to reward full-time classroom teachers for keeping schools open during the pandemic.
But teachers who worked through the pandemic and retired or resigned before June 2 will not receive the state’s largesse because of eligibility requirements issued by the governor.
“It is very possible that people who worked the entire school year will not get any of this money,” Spar said.
“Many districts decided to delay the start of the school year, but several did not. So their last day of school was before June 2, which means the teachers who retired on that last day of school — it could have been May 28 or May 31 or June 1 — were not employed on June 2.”
Non-teacher workers — including assistant principals, guidance counselors, bus drivers, classroom aides, and custodians — were also excluded from the bonus.
“This goes to show that this was a politically-motivated decision,” Spar said.
“This was not about rewarding the people who did this incredible work in our schools all year, this was about the governor wanting to make a political statement.”
Some school districts, like those in Pinellas and Brevard counties, have moved to include those staff members through district funds.
According to a note added with the checks, the payments are tax free.