State shrinks teacher bonuses, lawsuit alleges

Lawyers representing teachers are accusing the Florida Department of Education of improperly allowing school districts to deduct employer taxes from teacher bonuses, cutting into the financial awards of tens of thousands of high-performing educators.

The lawsuit, filed in Leon County Circuit Court on Tuesday, alleges that Florida education officials wrongly directed school districts to pay teachers less than the award amount provided in state law, under the controversial "Best and Brightest" teacher bonus program.

"We will fight for these teachers to get their due, as well as to uncover why the DOE shorted thousands of teachers their hard-earned bonuses, and to ensure they're properly paid going forward," attorney Ryan Morgan, of the Orlando-based Morgan & Morgan law firm, told reporters during a press conference announcing the lawsuit Tuesday.

According to Morgan, more than 100,000 teachers are owed between $25 million and $30 million for losses over the past two years.

The lawsuit accuses state officials of "wrongfully instructing school districts to pay less than the statutorily mandated bonuses."

Education officials did not have a response to the lawsuit.

"As a general practice, we do not comment on pending litigation," said Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman with the Department of Education, said in an email.

Former Orange County elementary school teacher Chris Alianiello is currently the only teacher represented in the legal challenge, but lawyers in the case are seeking class-action status. Alianiello, who joined Morgan at Tuesday's press conference, told reporters he wants to recoup what the state owes him from three separate bonuses.

Alianiello said he was supposed to receive a $6,000 bonus as a new teacher in the 2017-2018 academic year, but received $426 less. The following year, he was supposed to get two bonuses totaling $7,200, but the district deducted $511, Alianiello said.

Alianiello is seeking a jury trial as well as his "full and complete bonus amounts," according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit also asks the court to deem the department's actions unlawful and to stop education officials from authorizing school districts to "pay less than the program's required bonus amounts."

"The law seems to be very black and white in this case and I just want to do what is right," Alianiello said.

Under Florida law, the teacher bonus program, which was created in 2015, lays out specific award amounts that the education department must distribute to each school district.

The program has three different bonus categories for teachers and principals who are rated as "highly effective" or "effective." Educators can earn up to $6,000 for the awards.

"The statute establishes the requirements which the teachers must meet, and the specific bonus amounts to be awarded to those who meet or exceed those requirements. It does not have any qualifying language or clauses in it which states the DOE, or any school district can award and pay less than the program's stated bonus amounts (other than the third bonus amount of up to $800)," the 36-page complaint says.

The lawsuit includes a copy of an email sent by the Florida Department of Education to school district finance officers saying that "districts may subtract any employer portion of applicable payroll taxes and mandatory payroll expenses" when paying bonuses to teachers and principals.

"If necessary, other mandatory payroll related expenses such as unemployment compensation insurance or worker's compensation insurance that are normally paid by the district, may also be included in this line item," the January 2018 email instructed.

State officials reiterated this message in a March 2019 memo to school district superintendents, according records included in the lawsuit.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has been a powerful advocate for the teacher bonus program. Shortly after taking office, he asked state lawmakers to set aside $422 million for the program, but the Legislature instead approved $285 million for the bonuses. The governor has said he would like to revisit the issue during the 2020 legislative session.

The "Best and Brightest" program has been a flashpoint for the Florida Legislature, with Democratic lawmakers siding with teachers who maintain they would rather receive salary increases than one-time bonuses.

"The Legislature has shown no regard for the last 10-plus years, and I am happy to see teachers taking a stand to show that they are in charge and they will not be walked over. It's time for the state of Florida to pay up and do what's right for our greatest commodity, our teachers," state Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, told The News Service of Florida after learning of the lawsuit.

The union representing Florida teachers two years ago also challenged the bonus program, alleging in a lawsuit that it discriminated against black and Hispanic teachers who were rated "highly effective" because it considered teachers' scores on SAT or ACT college-entrance exams in determining eligibility. State lawmakers eliminated that requirement during the 2019 legislative session, which ended in May.