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Hillsborough conference brings school districts and unions together

TAMPA — Come up with a plan.

That's what Gov. Rick Scott has told teachers to do. Find a way to measure your own performance — and make it real — or the Legislature will do it for you.

Next week, school district representatives from across Florida will come to Hillsborough County and talk about ways to do just that.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia has invited all 67 superintendents and teachers union leaders to a conference on some of the tough changes — linking pay to student performance, mentoring new teachers and weeding out ineffective ones with tougher evaluation systems — that state legislators have vowed to mandate.

The meeting Wednesday and next Thursday at the Hyatt Regency is being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which last year awarded the district $100 million to support similar reforms.

Elia said not all unions and districts are dragging their feet when it comes to making big changes.

"I think you'll see there are more districts that are willing to do the kind of work we've been doing," she said.

It was less than a year ago that the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 6, which would have abolished tenure for new teachers and required districts to link teacher pay to student test scores. While then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it, Scott has promised to support a similar bill if the Legislature sends it to his desk this spring.

Districts are also being forced to tackle such changes in order to qualify for federal Race to the Top stimulus money. Hillsborough officials see the conference as a way to "prime the pump" and start conversations that have often been strained by labor-management conflicts over pay and benefits.

"Our strategy is not to wait and see what happens," said spokesman Stephen Hegarty. "We just think (districts) and teachers unions need to have these sorts of conversations."

Among the scheduled speakers are Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Florida Commissioner of Education Eric J. Smith.

Another keynote speaker, Scott, has yet to confirm. If he comes, he'll hear firsthand about the sorts of problems that have kept many districts and unions at arm's length in recent years.

"It's not the unions that are stopping a lot of things, it's the districts," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, citing districts' power over budgets and policy. "But it's the union that gets blamed for it."

Still, the two sides in Hernando have forged a positive relationship not unlike the one that resulted in ambitious changes in Hillsborough, he said. And unions in other counties are willing to talk, too.

"We know we have to find a solution, because the status quo is not a solution," Vitalo said. "And 'no' is not an answer."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Hillsborough conference brings school districts and unions together 01/12/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 13, 2011 11:18am]

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