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Gates grant and earlier changes put Hillsborough schools in sweet spot

Teachers all over Florida are watching in anger as state lawmakers upend their profession, but not teachers in Hillsborough County. They alone have been given an exception.

And it's no accident.

For years, the Hillsborough school district has been willing to do what most Florida districts won't — which is try things like merit pay, even though many teachers don't like it. That give-it-a-shot attitude led the Gates Foundation to award Hillsborough a $100 million grant last fall to boost teacher quality. And that in turn led the Florida Legislature to largely exempt the district from SB 6, the bill that, like the Gates grant, would force big changes in how teachers are paid and evaluated.

It remains to be seen whether Gov. Charlie Crist will okay SB 6. If he vetoes it, Hillsborough will again be an outlier.

But if he signs it, Hillsborough will be allowed to follow through on a more thoughtful, collaborative approach to reforming the teaching profession while every other district gets steamrolled by new mandates.

"Instead of being told, they led," said Kathleen Shanahan, a Tampa businesswoman on the state Board of Education.

Many Hillsborough teachers still have concerns about a whole new way of doing things. But after mounting teacher protests over SB 6, more of them are warming up to the Gates grant, said Hillsborough teachers union president Jean Clements.

Other districts will have to make massive changes on the fly; Hillsborough has been able to create its own time line. Other districts fear they'll have to cut budgets to meet the bill's requirements; Hillsborough has the grant money to smooth the transition. Other districts will have to put more emphasis on standardized test scores than Hillsborough. The differences go on and on.

"I've had people who were dead set against what we've done in the past 10 years come up now and say, 'I get it. I'm so grateful,' " Clements said. "We've said all along: If you're not at the table, you're on the menu."

The scope and speed of SB 6 has taken many teachers by surprise. But both Clements and superintendent MaryEllen Elia agreed it was only a matter of time before the state put more scrutiny on individual teachers.

Accountability isn't fading. And mounting research shows what a big difference a great teacher makes. Elia and Clements said they decided to embrace change on their terms instead of waiting for it to be imposed.

"I'm a realist," said Elia, who became superintendent in 2005.

Hillsborough is one of the few districts in Florida with a meaningful program for "differential pay," which gives more money to teachers working in high-poverty schools. Since 2006, it has used federal money to award 5 to 10 percent bonuses to experienced teachers in more than 20 schools.

In 2007, Hillsborough also was one of the few districts to sign up for a new, state-created merit pay program.

"We got together with the union and said, 'Okay, there is a bill that's going to put $10.8 million into Hillsborough's teachers' pockets (but) it has flaws,' " Elia said. "But when you think about it, is it better to say no to an opportunity for teachers before you even know whether you can make it work?"

The flaws caused an uproar. When the first round of bonuses were announced, it turned out nearly three-fourths of the 5,000 teachers who received them worked in more affluent schools.

But the district didn't kill the program. It revamped it.

By contrast, Pinellas doesn't have such programs.

Jade Moore, the late and legendary Pinellas union leader, once slammed a legislative plan for differential pay as a "glitzy solution" that wouldn't help students. Another time, he admitted the union and district purposely set the eligibility bar for merit bonuses so high that it would be "nearly impossible" for a teacher to earn one.

So why haven't other districts done the same things as Hillsborough?

A lack of both money and trust, said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the state teachers union. And when money is freed up, other critics have said, it comes with too many strings.

"A lot of the reticence (with state mandates) has been the trust level," Pudlow said.

The Hillsborough union has long had an independent streak.

In the 1980s, it dropped its affiliation with a national teachers union and stayed independent for eight years. In January, it was one of only five local teachers unions to sign Florida's application for a massive — and far-reaching — federal grant.

Clements said the union is willing to try things like merit pay and new evaluations because they have the potential, if done carefully, of making teachers better and students smarter.

"In Hillsborough, they're in the forefront of talking to the teachers," agreed Grace Smith, a parent and PTA member at the Rampello Downtown Partnership School. "But in Florida, they're not."

The changes in the Gates grant are as far reaching as what's in SB 6. It, too, reshapes teacher evaluations, pay and tenure — but in a way that's more nuanced and less divisive.

SB 6 is "hideous," Clements said.

Some fear the bill is so bad it will drive teachers out of the profession or out of state. Hills­borough officials expect to see their usual number of job openings this fall due to retirements and turnover, around 700.

They won't be surprised if they get more applications than usual.

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.

Gates grant and earlier changes put Hillsborough schools in sweet spot 04/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 10, 2010 12:06am]

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