Pasco teachers union surprises with unexpected stand on evaluations

In a surprise move, they say raises could suffer if scores' impact on evaluations is reduced.

Published July 2 2015
Updated July 3 2015

LAND O'LAKES — Val Smith admitted she was surprised to hear herself say the words.

But after much consideration, she said, the Pasco County teachers union wants student test scores to continue counting for 50 percent of a teacher's annual job evaluation.

The Legislature this year gave school districts the option to lower it to 33 1/3 percent, a hard-won change that followed intense lobbying and bitter complaints by teachers across the state.

And now Smith, the lead negotiator for United School Employees of Pasco, was pushing for the old way.

"On the surface, it seemed fantastic," she told Pasco County School District officials during contract talks Thursday. "Then we started doing the math."

The decision came down to number crunching.

Lowering the test score portion of evaluations to 35 percent, as the district had proposed, would make it more difficult for teachers to achieve a rating of "highly effective," Smith said.

She pointed to the example of a teacher with three years' worth of exceptional student performance, and a handful of classroom practices an administrator deemed to need improvement. Under the existing model, where testing data counts for half, that teacher would earn top marks.

But if the scores count for less, that same teacher would receive an "effective" rating, which in turn would limit raises.

District officials expressed surprise and dismay at the union's response.

After all, it was teachers who pushed the Legislature to bring the number down.

Lawmakers acknowledged that they had put too much emphasis on test scores, and that throttling back put more control over evaluations into local hands while keeping accountability intact.

Pasco officials were glad about the change. Little did they expect the teachers to turn up their noses.

"I am very concerned about not taking advantage of the relief the state is offering," district negotiator Kathy Scalise told the union representatives. The state "has not come with offers of relief in the past."

Scalise said she considered it shortsighted to retain the 50-50 model, suggesting that changes in state rules regarding evaluations and student data soon will change the playing field. The union's math could come up with vastly different results at that time, she said.

"Put 65 percent of the score in the teachers' hands, their performance in the classroom," she advised.

Smith said she didn't want to negotiate based on unknowns the Florida Department of Education might present in the future. Until more is known, she contended, the status quo is better than the district's offer.

If needed, Smith said, an alternative might be to copy the Pinellas County model. That School Board agreed in June to count test scores as one-third of a teacher's evaluation unless the 50 percent provided a better outcome for the teacher.

Smith acknowledged her union's stance might even come under fire from its own members. She expected that, given enough information, teachers would agree.

"We're going to have to make sure we educate people," she said.

The sides are scheduled to return to the table next week.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.