TAMPA — Longtime teachers union president Jean Clements could have competition.
Joseph Thomas, a high school teacher who clashed with the Hillsborough County school district last month over his evaluation, said Thursday he will challenge Clements in the February election.
Thomas requested, but has not yet completed, the qualifying forms, said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Classroom Teachers Association.
Thomas, 43, says Clements and the union leadership are too closely aligned with the administration in Empowering Effective Teachers, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded evaluation and mentoring program.
In the case of his dispute, he said, "they weren't interested in whether my claim was valid, but in having me toe the line."
Thomas said he felt his peer evaluator, a former elementary schoolteacher, was not qualified to judge him. Union officials did say they'd represent Thomas if he was fired for insubordination.
But a compromise was struck and Thomas kept his job at Newsome High School in Lithia.
Clements, 55, has been union president for nine years. If re-elected, she'll serve three more. She said she generally wins by wide margins, but "I think you're always vulnerable. This is a very uncertain time and there is a degree of anger and resentment."
Some teachers are frustrated about issues beyond the union's control, she said. Others are distressed because the Gates effort, now in its second year, is an enormous learning experience.
Leadership has worked closely with the administration to implement the Gates project. Replacing simple evaluations by principals, the new system combines more structured evaluations by principals and peers, and a data-driven component that measures student performance.
Clements said she learned from experience that she can be a more effective labor leader if she cultivates a cordial and professional relationship with administrators. "I can't tell you how many arguments we've had with the district, this week alone," she said. "And we won most of them."
She and Baxter-Jenkins estimated the union has 9,000 members, over half the teaching workforce of more than 15,000.
Membership is growing, Clements said, largely because government workers want protection at a time of heightened political criticism. Those who quit typically cite the $600 yearly dues.
But Thomas said many members are soured on the organization because of the Gates reforms. "I've been hearing from so many teachers," he said.