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Teachers union sues state over 'unconstitutional' merit pay law

TALLAHASSEE — Carolyn Lofton, a Pinellas County teacher, lobbied Florida lawmakers to kill the controversial teacher tenure bill that many say will transform her profession.

But "it fell on deaf ears," said Lofton, who works with kindergarteners at Skycrest Elementary School in Clearwater.

So she's taking a different approach

On Wednesday, the state's largest teachers union filed suit on behalf of Lofton and several other teachers challenging the new law that redefines how public school teachers are paid, evaluated, hired and fired.

In the lawsuit filed in Leon County Circuit Court, the Florida Education Association argues that some provisions of Senate Bill 736 — the first bill Gov. Rick Scott signed into law — violate teachers' collective bargaining rights under Florida law.

Union leaders insisted the lawsuit is not a rejection of merit pay but an effort to do it right.

"The problem has been the way it's been done," said Ron Meyer, an attorney for the union. "They haven't adequately funded it, and they haven't come up with systems that make any sense."

The new law determines teachers' pay in part by how well their students perform on standardized tests. It eliminated the old "tenure" system of multiyear contracts by giving new teachers one-year contracts and making layoffs based on the performance evaluations instead of seniority.

Specifically, the union says the law prohibits the use of degrees in setting salary schedules in most instances, mandates base salary levels for performance salary schedules, and requires school boards to release teachers with the lowest performance evaluations in times of staff cutbacks, among other complaints.

"These are all either denials or abridgements of this fundamental right that's provided in the Constitution," Meyer said.

Union officials said they will not ask for an injunction to halt the implementation of SB 736, as districts have already begun developing the new evaluation system as required by the new law. But they do want the state Department of Education to lift a Sept. 30 deadline for local districts to determine how those changes will be done.

Five teachers and a speech therapist are listed as plaintiffs in the suit: Lofton; fellow Pinellas educator Brandt Robinson, who teaches social studies at Dunedin High School; two teachers belonging to the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association; one from Indian River County; and a speech therapist from St. Augustine.

Lofton, a 35-year veteran of Pinellas schools, attended the union's news conference Wednesday announcing the lawsuit.

In an interview, she said one of her concerns is that the model for evaluating teachers is still being developed even though the school year has started.

"It's like trying to fly an airplane that you don't have all the parts to," she said. "As a classroom teacher it would be nice to know what the expectation would be."

The lawsuit names Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, the Board of Education and the Florida Department of Education as defendants.

"We intend to vigorously defend the law," said Tom Butler, a Department of Education spokesman, who noted the agency had not yet been served.

Scott signed the Student Success Act into law March 24. He said then he was proud the first bill to earn his signature would "give Florida the best educated work force to compete in the 21st century economy."

The lawsuit marks the 11th lawsuit this year to target either Scott or a policy he supported. A Scott spokesman defended the law on Wednesday and said he is confident it is legal.

"Regular working folks don't have tenure. Why should bad teachers?" Lane Wright said. "Gov. Scott is looking out for students — making sure they get the best teachers in the classroom, while the special-interest teachers union is looking out for bad teachers who pay their union dues."

The Foundation for Excellence in Education, founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, issued a statement critical of the union for caring "more about protecting political power than promoting a dynamic, highly skilled work force of educators."

The union already is involved in ongoing lawsuits against the state relating to changes to state employee pension plans and a proposed constitutional amendment relating to tax funds used for religious institutions.

Times staff writer Jeff Solochek contributed to this report. Reach Katie Sanders at ksanders@sptimes.com or (850)224-7263.

Teachers union sues state over 'unconstitutional' merit pay law 09/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 15, 2011 8:41am]
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