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Clergy spouse changes law in teachers' favor (July 14, 2004)

Clergy spouse changes law in teachers' favor (July 14, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Clergy spouse changes law in teachers' favor

July 14, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0110}

An e-Review Feature
By John M. De Marco**

POMPANO BEACH — The husband-wife/pastor-teacher duo is a common dynamic among clergy families, particularly in the Florida Conference. It's a great way for a couple to serve the community in different, but powerful roles.

But some have discovered financial drawbacks impacting the teacher spouse when a move between churches takes place.

POMPANO BEACH  Ricki Kirk, left, and her husband, the Rev. Doug Kirk, attend the ordination service of friend Margaret Matthews last year. Kirk, a teacher, helped change a state law that enables clergy spouses to carry their years of service from one school district to another. "...I am just happy that other ministers wives will not have to go through what many of us did in the past, always going back to 10 years of service," she said. Photo courtesy of Ricki Kirk, Photo #04-0043.

Ricki Kirk is one such pastor's spouse who found each move to a new church, and school district, required her to be an example of how public school teachers are underpaid when compared to the intangible value they add to a young person's life. Kirk, a teacher for more than 25 years, kept discovering that with each move she was forced to take teaching jobs at pay far below her years of experience.

Kirk lived with the situation for several years, then began to question it, then got the attention of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—and subsequently saw the legislature pass and governor sign not one but three bills to address the issue of teachers retaining their seniority when changing school districts.

Kirk, whose husband is the Rev. Doug Kirk, pastor of First United Methodist Church here, says she e-mails Bush on a regular basis now and usually gets an immediate response.

The family served a church in Wellington from 1984 until 1992, but was then asked to move to a church in Jacksonville. Kirk, with 16 years of teaching experience, learned then that the Jacksonville school district would only recognize 10 years of her teaching experience—tantamount to a $16,000 pay cut.

"Going back to 10 years was a shock," Kirk said. "They [the school districts] never accepted more than 10 years of service [when changing districts]."

A teacher's retirement was also impacted by this former statewide policy. The money saved in the state retirement system is contingent upon years of service, which means a teacher who has worked for 30 years could face the risk of having barely more than 10 years recognized if he or she retired after a recent move between school districts. 

The family served in Jacksonville for three years, then moved to Gainesville. Kirk again saw her seniority recognized as only 10 years by the Alachua County school district and her pay cut. 

The Kirks spent five years in Gainesville and moved to Pompano Beach in 2000. While seeking a teaching opportunity in Broward County, Kirk learned her teaching experience—now totaling nearly 25 years—would once again be recognized as only 10 years regarding seniority, money and retirement.

Kirk looked into openings in the Palm Beach County school district, where she had taught when the family lived in Wellington. Palm Beach would accept 16 years' seniority, the amount she had built up at the time the family left there eight years before.

Frustrated with Broward County and years of lost revenue, Kirk decided to act. "I was very upset that they wouldn't accept my years of service," she said. "I met with the people in the school board, teacher's union, and so forth. A lot of these people acted like they didn't realize I couldn't transfer all my years of service. Most people didn't know. Other teachers were shocked when I told them I had to go back to 10 years."

Kirk tapped every source she could think of to get the system changed and her seniority fully recognized by the county in which she lived. Finally, in January 2001 she tracked down Bush's e-mail address.

"I feel I'm getting robbed," she wrote the governor. "I should be getting $20,000 more than I'm making now." Kirk also told Bush her estimated loss of salary over the years, not taking into consideration raises, was about $106,000.

"I said, 'You want good teachers, and I do too. I'm not teaching for the money, but this is frustrating,' " she wrote.

The next night Kirk received a personal response from Bush. He thanked her for writing and said he was proposing the state legislature allow teachers to transfer between districts without losing seniority. Bush said the state's school superintendents supported the change. Kirk and the governor e-mailed back and forth several times during the next few months, and in May 2001 Bush signed legislation enacting the change.

The bill, however, applied only to teachers hired after July 1, 2001. Kirk also found school officials in Broward County would not accept the bill's changes, claiming it did not express Bush's full intent.

Kirk continued her battle. The governor's office contacted her and requested copies of her e-mails to officials—teacher's union representatives, school board members and other administrators. The legislature rewrote the bill and passed a new version in 2002 that allowed seniority to be preserved not only by teachers moving between school districts, but those entering the district from outside the state.

Broward County continued to recognize only a portion of Kirk's service, so she applied in Palm Beach County and began teaching there last fall. It was her 26th year of teaching, and her salary and retirement at last reflected 26 years.

The legislation was amended again this year, stipulating that teachers who leave a school district for one year and return may retain their years of service. This year the bill was affectionately called "The Ricki Bill" by the governor's office. Officials in Tallahassee praised her tenacity.

"I appreciated that," said Kirk, who is attempting to return closer to home this summer and teach again in Broward County.

"The personnel department told me I can bring in all my years of service," she said. "I said, 'Not to be skeptical or anything, would you mind putting that in writing?' " Broward did put the promise in writing.

"Now, any minister's wife can move anywhere in the state. They can move away for one year and then move back and bring back all their years," Kirk said.

She added, "We move at the whim of the Methodist church or because we feel our husbands are called. I've never been fired from a job, and I've never had a problem getting a job. It's part of the price you pay, but I didn't think it was fair."

"This is the only time I've ever done anything like this politically," she said. "It was really interesting to finally get somebody's ear."


This article relates to Church and Society.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.