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Pinellas joins other Florida districts in seeking more job security for teachers

Not much more could fit in Lisa Lugo's two-bedroom apartment, so she went to the bank this summer to inquire about a mortgage for a house.

Everything was working out. She had just scored her first full-time teaching job at St. Petersburg's Lakewood Elementary.

"And I kind of hit a wall," said Lugo, 22. "They said (no) basically because I can't promise I will have a job next year that pays this much."

Lugo is one of thousands of teachers in Florida hired after 2011, when Gov. Rick Scott signed a law eliminating teacher tenure. Since then, teachers not grandfathered into the old system must work under contracts that have to be renewed every year, and districts don't need a reason to let them go.

But 38 school districts statewide, including two in Tampa Bay, have found a way to give a sense of job security for teachers in good standing, and Pinellas County hopes to join their ranks this week.

District and union leaders signed a tentative agreement last month guaranteeing teachers who receive a rating of effective or highly effective, meet all eligibility requirements and have not faced disciplinary action will be recommended for renewal, providing there's still a spot for them at their school.

Teachers will be voting on the agreement through Wednesday.

"Since I've been president I've been fighting full-tilt against the idea that a teacher can lose their job without someone looking them in the eyes and tell them what they did wrong," said Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. He called the pact "a big win" for the union, teachers and the district.

More than 3,200 instructional staff members in Pinellas are on the non-tenure pay schedule, compared to 4,000 who are grandfathered into the old system. Gandolfo said the district last year did not renew the contracts of six teachers who were rated effective, and four were reinstated after the union intervened.

He commended superintendent Mike Grego for "taking that leap."

"I told him flat out, 'Pinellas needs to be bold,'" Gandolfo said. "If we want to be that beacon of light in Florida during a teacher shortage, you need to be able to offer them some kind of job security."

Grego said the increasing number of teachers and administrators on annual contracts prompted action. "We felt like we wanted to demonstrate how highly we value effective and highly effective teachers," he said.

However, he was clear: The new language does not take away the district's power to release teachers for "extenuating circumstances," and the School Board still has the final say.

Pinellas will have plenty of company. Other school districts with similar language include Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Orange and locally: Hillsborough and Hernando.

But those counties have caveats. Hernando gives the guarantee to just highly effective teachers.

"It was a foot in the door. It was a start," said Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Vince La Borante. "It made (teachers) feel comfortable in working in Hernando County."

He said language to include teachers with an effective rating could be bargained in the future.

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, said her district added protections for teachers around the time the 2011 law passed, but now is trying to eliminate them.

"I think it is an incredibly sad state of affairs that, while our district was a leader for teachers in all sorts of ways while (38) other districts are embracing language like this, our district wants to go backwards," she said.

Baxter-Jenkins said the language is supposed to protect qualified teachers who face termination over matters such as personality conflicts or academic freedom.

Mark West, Hillsborough's employee relations manager, declined to comment, citing ongoing negotiations with the union.

Pasco County, meanwhile, has refused to adopt terms like those up for approval in Pinellas, saying such language is against state law. Of 1,428 employees on the annual salary schedule in Pasco, less than 1 percent were not renewed last year, said Kathy Scalise, Pasco's director of employee relations. "If we're not non-reappointing people in large numbers, it's not necessary," she said.

Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, said agreements like Pinellas' are a good step toward making teaching "a true profession again."

"I'm sure that when legislators enacted the current evaluation rules, they were convinced that highly effective and effective teachers wouldn't be non-renewed," she said. "But we know that teachers who get highly effective and effective ratings are being let go without cause."

With the Pinellas union expected to vote in favor of the new contract and a 3.85 percent pay increase, Lugo, the rookie teacher at Lakewood Elementary, says she feels more at ease.

"There are a lot of new teachers coming in and they need to have that reassurance," she said. "I'm not going to be punished for needing to grow."

Lugo says that after she gets her bonus in January for working at a struggling school and saves a little more, she's heading back to the bank and looking for a home.

"And hopefully I'm going to find something that my picky self likes."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

Pinellas joins other Florida districts in seeking more job security for teachers 10/17/16 [Last modified: Friday, October 14, 2016 8:09pm]
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