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Politics / Issues

Five Questions: Chris Latvala On Teacher Pay, School Security, And More

Chris Latvala listens during a meeting
Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said teacher pay will be his main focus during the session, which starts Jan. 14. NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

In Florida’s education policy world, state Rep. Chris Latvala has sway.

Latvala is the House’s chief education budget writer as chairman of the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, and he serves as vice chairman of the House Education Committee.

The two panels will play a key role during the 2020 legislative session in vetting teacher-pay plans that Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a top priority. The governor is proposing a $602 million package that would set a minimum salary of $47,500 for public school teachers and a new $300 million bonus program for teachers and principals.

Latvala, R-Clearwater, said teacher pay will be his main focus during the session, which starts Jan. 14. But he is not promising that the House’s final teacher-pay plan will mirror what the governor wants.

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Chris Latvala: 

Q: You say you want to focus on teacher pay during the 2020 legislative session. That’s in line with what the governor wants to see done next year. In statements, House Speaker Jose Oliva has called for fiscal restraint. How do you expect to navigate the issue in the House next session?

LATVALA: I certainly respect the governor. He is doing a wonderful job, but I think in the House we are going to have some of our own ideas when it comes to giving teachers a salary increase. We certainly are looking at the governor’s proposal, but we will have some ideas of our own. I think the important thing to look at is that there is agreement --- widespread agreement --- when it comes to giving teachers a raise (among lawmakers). The question is, how will that be doled out? And who will receive it? There may be some differences in opinion when it comes to different plans, but we certainly are respectful of the governor’s plan, and having the teacher starting pay be number two in the nation is certainly a lofty and admirable goal.

Q: While on the subject of teacher pay, do you support eliminating the Best and Brightest bonus program? In the Senate, members have argued that eliminating the program could free up money for teacher compensation. Do you have thoughts on that?

LATVALA: I voted for Best and Brightest. I think it’s a good program, but when it comes to teacher salary increases, everything is on the table except for raising taxes. Currently in the House we are doing budget re-prioritization exercises. (Our appropriations subcommittee) is trying to free up half a billion dollars that we can reprioritize for other areas of the budget. Best and Brightest, you know, has close to $300 million that could be used for other areas.

Q: Can we talk about school safety? Recently, a statewide grand jury released a report that highlights concerns about the implementation of some school safety measures. Is there anything specific that you would like to do related to school security? Any new proposals or changes to existing law?

LATVALA: School security is certainly something that we need to make sure that we fund, as well as mental health funding. We need to make sure not only that our kids are secure, but that their mental health is being taken care of. Another one of the initiatives that I’m a big proponent of (is) the idea of panic alarms or panic buttons that can be done through phone apps. There’s a bill that has been filed this year that would (require) panic buttons in schools. If there was a school shooting (school personnel would) pull out their phone and hit a button and it goes to the nearest police officer. (Police) open it up and they see exactly where in the school there’s a shooting and so it would greatly increase their response time. There are some school districts in Florida that have something similar and there’s some that don’t. I would prefer that statewide, everyone has the same system.

Q: Another question I wanted to ask you is regarding state Rep. Chris Sprowls. He is next in line to be speaker of the House. You two have long been close and you actually offered some nice words about him during his designation ceremony. What sort of role do you think you’ll play in his administration? Can we expect to see you in a leadership role?

LATVALA: I’ve been friends with him for more than 15 years, since 2004. You know, he is going to be a leader that we can all be proud of. He is a true servant leader. As to specific roles, I have no idea. I just want to help him have a successful tenure as speaker and help him in any way I can.

Q: Is there a specific policy issue, other than education, that you are passionate about? What are you eager to dip your toes into?

LATVALA: I’m passionate about child welfare issues. Last year, there was a 2-year-old murdered in my district by his mother. His name was Jordan Belliveau. After his death, I started researching how he slipped through the cracks and found he was in and out of foster care. When he went missing, his mother said that he was abducted … and there was an Amber Alert released. There were searches and a few days later, she confessed to his murder. I was bound and determined to do something and to pass a bill to protect kids like him. What I found was that there are 1,500 kids in Florida that are in dangerous situations like Jordan Belliveau. So, I filed a bill (HB 315) that would mandate law enforcement be notified when a biological parent has a child protective investigation against them. Another part of the bill had to do with brain-injury training for children under the age of 6. In Jordan’s case, a medical doctor told me that he had suffered at least three concussions in his two-year life. The bill would mandate that judges, child welfare workers and child welfare attorneys get training on how to detect that. After my bill failed in the Senate (in May), the guardian ad litems started researching how to do the training themselves and over the summer, they started instituting that. So currently, in Florida, all guardian ad litems are doing the training.