POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – After threats of being fired, more than 1,500 teachers and staff members called out of work Monday in Polk County, the same day teachers from across the state rallied for change in Tallahassee.
More than 1,200 were teachers who needed to be replaced in the classroom.
“This is for all of us. At the district office, they’re educators too so the lack of funding and the lack of respect hurts everybody,” said Stephanie Yocum, teachers’ union president.
Late last week, the Florida Department of Education threatened to fire any teachers who were absent from work Monday.
“I think some people got scared because when you threaten to take away people’s jobs and their retirement and their certification, it does give people pause. Our cause is just. We’re on the right side of this,” said Yocum.
After repeated questions from 8 On Your Side on Sunday, Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd said there would be no retribution from the school district.
On Monday, the district provided a more emphatic statement.
“Absolutely not. No teachers will be fired, disciplined or otherwise retaliated against for participating in the rally,” a district spokesperson wrote.
Polk County Public Schools says its starting teacher salary ranks 14th in Florida.
When it comes to overall funding it receives, the county comes in 61st out of 67, according to both the school district and the teachers’ union.
“We’re so drastically underfunded. I think the pain point has really gotten to people and enough is enough,” said Yocum.
School board member Billy Townsend attended the rally in Tallahassee.
“This is the public’s education system, and Polk County is the pointy end of the sword in the fight take it back from bad people with power,” he wrote on Facebook.
Hundreds of teachers and supporters who couldn’t make it to Tallahassee rallied in Lakeland.
“In Florida, we have not improved our education funding in a very long time. On top of not improving our funding, we’ve put burdens on school districts and teachers that increase the cost to them. They’re called unfunded mandates,” said Jennifer Sabin, a parent who organized the local rally.
Teachers who were absent Monday were replaced by district employees and substitute teachers.
“Our goal was always – let’s push out everybody we can into the classrooms so that we make sure that we provided coverage for the schools,” said Superintendent Byrd. “My district staff is really having a great time because now they actually get to come out into the buildings and see what actually goes on each and every day.”
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