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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Will the legislature and Rick Scott listen to the superintendents and teachers?

From the St. Petersburg Times

By Tom Marshall

TAMPA — Some two dozen Florida school superintendents and union chiefs gathered Wednesday to find common ground in the contentious debate over improving the state's education system.

Hillsborough County officials, who organized the conference, said districts shouldn't leave the job to state legislators.

"We can't sit back and watch what comes down the road from Washington and Tallahassee," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "We have to lead the way."

Of Florida's 67 districts, at least half planned to send at least two representatives — one from labor, one from management — to the conference, which was funded with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The meeting comes nearly a year after Florida legislators tried to mandate aggressive changes, including merit pay for teachers and the abolishment of tenure for new teachers. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed that effort, Senate Bill 6, but Gov. Rick Scott has said he will sign such legislation if it reaches him.

Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough teachers' union, said the meeting is very much a response to Scott's call for teachers and unions to "come up with a plan" of their own.

"And I wish he were here to see it," she said, referring to Scott, who declined an invitation to speak. "I was so looking forward to spending time with him. I want to meet him."

Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers union, said conflict has been the norm lately in discussions about how to fix public schools.

"There's always someone on the sideline yelling, 'Fight fight fight!,'" she said in a keynote address. "But it doesn't work in schools."

Hillsborough officials point with pride to the decades of labor-management collaboration that helped them land a $100 million Gates Foundation grant last year to overhaul their teacher evaluation and support systems.

But in many Florida districts, the conversation between districts and teachers unions often comes down to a much simpler issue: money. And with tight budgets, it's often not very pretty.

"We've done a pretty good job of beating each other up," said Pat Santeramo, president of the teachers' union in Broward County. "We're at subzero right now."

Around 1,300 of his teachers were laid off as the district grappled with the loss of tax revenues. While many were later rehired, he said the sorts of issues being discussed at the Hillsborough conference, such as performance pay and peer mentoring, seem pretty remote compared to such problems.

"But if the Legislature is looking to impose their will on us, it would make more sense for the district and union to do something," Santeramo added. "I'm always willing to try."

Tom Marshall can be reached at or (813) 226-3400.

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