TAMPA — In normal times, the election to lead the Hillsborough County teachers' union might appear as exciting as Groundhog Day in Florida.
Jean Clements wins, hands down. She has nearly a decade of experience. She works nonstop. She's a skilled speaker with a high profile.
But these aren't normal times. Clements, 55, has two challengers in the Classroom Teachers Association election that begins Feb. 13. And both of them see the vote as a referendum on the district's ambitious Empowering Effective Teachers project.
The project, funded with $100 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is a radical departure from the old way of rewarding teachers through seniority. Now there are separate evaluations by principals and peer observers, as well as a data component based on test scores and other student information.
The Hillsborough district won the Gates grant in 2009 largely because of its collaboration with the union. Supporters say the system is far better than what the Legislature later ordered for the rest of the state.
While Clements and superintendent MaryEllen Elia say the new system is infusing pride and professionalism into teaching, it has detractors.
Leo Haggerty, a longtime union officer who teaches government at Wharton High School, was among the first to speak out when the district released its first full set of scores in September. "Delusion by confusion," he called them.
Joseph Thomas, a government teacher at Newsome High, risked his job two months later when he rejected his peer evaluator on the grounds that the two taught different age groups. Soon after Thomas, 43, agreed to a compromise with the district, he announced he would run against Clements. Haggerty, 58, entered the race in January.
Both men see the election as a choice between an entrenched leader who works hand-in-hand with the administration and someone who speaks for teachers who feel disenfranchised. Critics say EET, as it is often called, is demeaning and encourages cookie-cutter teaching methods.
"They call it empowering effective teachers, but there is nothing empowering about it," Haggerty said. "It's flawed, and we need to change it."
Unlike Thomas, who is new to union politics, Haggerty is a school representative and a member of the union's state governance board.
He said he would like to establish a 15-member committee made up of only teachers to address teacher complaints. Numerous advisory panels already exist for that purpose, but Haggerty said that because administrators sit on them, teachers often feel they cannot speak freely.
Thomas advocates a more flexible rating system, a more careful selection of the peer evaluators and an appeals process.
Haggerty, similarly, wants to see a grievance procedure, and doesn't think teachers should have to go through the process if they are in the district's preretirement program. He said he is out to improve EET, not disband it.
For her part, Clements said, "If I'm not about improving EET, then I don't know who is."
A district employee since 1979, Clements taught special education before she was elected union president in 2002. A series of organizational changes, affecting term limits, made it possible for her to be re-elected three times and run again this year.
Clements said she fights fiercely to protect teachers and represent their interests as EET evolves. But over the years she has become more of a collaborator than an obstructionist, she said, learning she could accomplish more through communication with district officials.
"They're not required to talk to us on a daily basis," she said. "They have to come to the table once a year. But they don't have to consult with us about every single issue.
"I have fought really hard to have the kind of relationship that allows our teachers, their voice and their union to have powerful influence way beyond just what the district must talk with us about. That gives our employees unprecedented influence and unprecedented power."
Union leaders said more than half the district's teachers are members, with yearly dues of $630. The president earns his or her scheduled district salary, plus a stipend.
Thomas, an 18-year member, was disappointed at first with the way union staff treated his dispute involving the peer evaluator. He felt they were pushing him to cooperate instead of asserting his rights. Clements said they were trying to protect him from the consequences of a rash act of insubordination.
Since then, the two met at a labor rally and both described a pleasant conversation.
Haggerty realizes that, by entering the race, he runs the risk of splintering the anti-Gates vote. He said he doesn't mind.
Suppose, he said, Clements gets 40 percent, Thomas gets 30 and Haggerty gets 30. "That's still a 60 percent mandate," he said.
It also would mean a runoff, said executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins. If there is a majority winner, she hopes to make it known by Feb. 23.
While the outcome can't be predicted, a defeat for Clements would raise the question of whether EET might be jeopardized.
"It shouldn't, and I hope it wouldn't," Clements said. But she said if the relationship between the union and the administration changes dramatically, there is no guarantee, as "a working, professional collaboration is one of the things the (Gates) Foundation was counting on."
Elia said the project would not be affected. And district spokesman Stephen Hegarty pointed out that Pittsburgh, another participating district, has changed union leaders and superintendents since it received a Gates grant — and the program survived.
Reach Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]