PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — On Tuesday, teachers, educational and support staff in Pinellas County announced they’re opening salary negotiations with the district.

The teachers and staff are asking for better wages to deal with what they say is a critical shortage.

“The classrooms are overcrowded, very overcrowded, because of the lack of teachers,” said Nancy Velardi, President of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

As of this week, Pinellas County School reported a shortage of 319 teachers.

Local unions claim it’s at a critical point with all staff.

“The shortage is across-the-board, every single employee group,” said Velardi.

On Tuesday, the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and the Pinellas Educational Support Professionals Association held a news conference to announce the start of salary negotiations.

The groups are asking for better wages, citing increased workloads and inflation.

They hope to the district will raise starting salaries above $50,000 and offer more substantial bonuses to veteran teachers.

“Our counselors, their ratio is now double the national, the recommended ratio of how many children they should be servicing,” said Velardi.

“The people need it, and that’s why a lot of people are retiring and they’re going to another county because they can get better salaries then Pinellas County,” said Nelly Henjes, President of the Pinellas Educational Support Professionals Association.

Both Velardi and Henjes pointed out that the school board approved raises Monday for bus drivers, and said they hoped the district will do the same for other employees.

“We’re very excited that the bus drivers got such a wonderful package. What we are a little concerned about is that the rest of the employees are also in a critical shortage position,” said Velardi.

However, even if a pay raise is granted, the number of teacher vacancies is still expected to climb.

The conversation is gripping the nation and taking center stage in Pinellas County once again.

The cost of living is outpacing teacher salaries amid growing demands in the classroom.

“We are tired of fighting for a bigger piece of a little pie,” said Lee Bryant, president-elect for the Pinellas Classroom Teacher Association. “The pie itself needs to grow.”

The two teacher unions are joining forces in a renewed push to see change.

They’re citing overcrowding in the classroom that’s putting a squeeze on teachers and resulting in less attention for each student in the classroom.

However, there’s a glimmer of hope since the school board approved wages for bus drivers to boost recruitment and retention. 

Teachers are asking the board to continue that momentum as the contract bargaining process gets underway in June.

Pinellas County Schools emailed the following statement regarding the issue:

“Pinellas County Schools values all our employees and looks forward to increasing salaries the best we can through the budgetary and bargaining processes.”

Velardi said they plan to look at the upcoming school budget to come up with salary ranges and plan to open bargaining in June.