Next week, students and teachers will meet in classrooms across the state to begin a new public school year.

A new year also means another round of dues for the state teachers union.

The Florida Education Association is the largest labor union in Florida. It’s an affiliate of national powerhouses American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, and it has dozens of local affiliates under its statewide banner.

The FEA promises to provide its 128,264 members “a voice on the job, strength in numbers and protection.”

But representation comes at a price.

Nearly half of the state union’s collected dues are paid to its own leaders and employees in the form of compensation and benefits.

A review of the most recent records filed with the U.S. Department of Labor shows the FEA gleaned more than $24.3 million in dues and mandatory fees from its members in 2014-15. In turn, it paid 43 of its officers and employees registered at its Tallahassee headquarters over six figures each in total annual compensation.

As per the union’s annual report, compensation includes salary, allowances and non-benefit related payments.

The FEA employs 113 people with varying job titles and designations. But the average compensation for its 43 high-paid workers was about $131,000 — more than two and one-half times the average teacher salary of $48,000 a year. Those union fat cats made about four times the pay of the average teacher salary in Holmes County, home of Florida’s lowest-paid educators.

Records show the six-figure recipients took home a combined $5,636,500 — equating to one out of every four dollars of union dues.

The FEA spent $5.6 million in non-salaried benefits, including life insurance, health insurance and pension payments. Another $1.95 million was spent on political activities and lobbying.

Union president Andy Ford was paid the most at $235,504. Vice President Joanne McCall was second at $217,584, and Chief of Staff Martin Schapp was third at $208,203.

The union is a reliable contributor to the Democratic Party of Florida and other liberal organizations, according to OpenSecrets.org. It lobbied the Florida Legislature last year to oppose school vouchers, state imposed teacher evaluations and independent charter schools.

Expensive union-backed lawsuits, filed against the state for inadequately funding public education and for offering tax credit scholarships to allow children from low-income families to attend private schools, both failed.

The Association of American Educators, a non-union educators association, disagrees with spending union dues — taken from publicly funded teacher salaries — on partisan politics. It calls such efforts “self-serving” and “misguided.”

“Professional educators should belong to an organization that promotes their profession above personal gain,” the organization states.

Union dues are also paid at the local level. The 30,600 members of the FEA-affiliated United Teachers of Dade, serving Miami-Dade County, paid $9,519,000 in dues last year, or $311 per member. The Manatee Education Association charges its members biweekly dues of $34.07.

Charging moderate membership costs to members may be a palatable way to enrich union officials, but it also purchases outsized perks — some of which may be questionable.

“When it comes to coverage, the Manatee Education Association along with its affiliates, Florida Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, has members covered in all areas of job related issues including legal, and it’s all included in the price of your dues,” states a new MEA membership pitch.

Coverage includes allegations of child abuse resulting in criminal charges, ethics charges referred to the Department of Education and questions of competency reflecting on job performance.

Florida is one of 26 right-to-work states, meaning public school teachers do not have to join a union in order to work.

Photo credit: Ervins Strauhmanis via Flickr.

The above article is reprinted with permission from the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity and FloridaWatchdog.org.

William Patrick is Watchdog.org’s Florida reporter. His work has been featured on Fox News and the Drudge Report, among other national sites. He’s also been cited and reposted by numerous statewide news organizations.