Sunday, February 18, 2018
Education

Hillsborough teachers union does do-overs on some School Board endorsements

TAMPA — The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, which screened School Board candidates last week for endorsements, will screen some of them again.

"We received information about possible activity outside our screening which may have impacted or prejudiced our process," says an email from union executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins.

She would not elaborate but said she was responding to complaints.

Michael Weston, a candidate who took part in the June 27 screening, said the crowd of about 50 union members included a disproportionate number who support the Gates-funded Empowering Effective Teachers program.

He thinks some were peer evaluators, a special class of teachers who observe and rate their colleagues as part of the EET process. Weston contends that EET demoralizes teachers and that the district has made erroneous claims about the validity of its scoring methods.

Weston's opponent, incumbent Carol Kurdell, is a strong supporter of the Gates program. Kurdell could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

The district has about 150 evaluators and about 13,000 teachers. Weston and a coworker estimate as many as half in the crowd that evening were peer evaluators.

Baxter-Jenkins said that was not true. But she would not discuss her investigation further, and said the union acted in an abundance of caution. "School Board races are important, and it is our mission and our goal to have a fair process," she said.

It's not known if evaluators just happened to be at the meeting or if someone suggested they attend. Such encouragement, if it came from a manager, could be considered improper political activity.

EET, as the district calls it, is a crowning achievement for superintendent MaryEllen Elia and embraced by most board members, who say it will result in better teachers. And supporters say it is far superior to reforms the Legislature ordered for the rest of the state.

The do-over surprised and confused some candidates, whose schedules already are jam-packed with campaign appearances.

"I've never experienced an occurrence like that in any race I've run in," said Joseph Robinson, who also is challenging Kurdell.

"How many times do they want me to go?" asked Carl Kosierowski, who is running for the same seat.

The dustup illustrates deep divisions over the Gates project, which — along with Elia herself — is a hot issue in all four of this year's races.

Kurdell is one of three strong Elia supporters who face challenges in the Aug. 14 election and, in her case, a possible runoff on Nov. 6. Doretha Edgecomb and Jack Lamb, who also give Elia high marks, are opposed by Henry Ballard and Cindy Stuart.

Kurdell and her opponents were screened the same evening as Susan Valdes and Eddy Calcines.

Unlike the other incumbents, Valdes is often critical of Elia and at odds with the administration. Calcines said he was recruited to run to make the board more congenial.

All will be asked to return for rescreenings July 12.

That date, itself, is problematic. Baxter-Jenkins said she did not realize it was the night of the Bell Shoals Baptist Church candidate forum in Brandon, an event that dates back to 1994 and attracts up to 850 people.

She said she'll allow members to judge candidates by their written statements if they cannot be at the union hall. Kurdell opponent Terry Kemple is not affected, as he did not take part in the June 27 event.

Robert McElheny, also going after the Kurdell seat, said he's troubled by the conflict.

When he got his email from the union, he said, "I called them and told them that's the night of Bell Shoals and that won't work."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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