TAMPA — Some two dozen Florida school superintendents and union chiefs gathered Wednesday to find common ground in the contentious debate over improving the state's education system.
Hillsborough County officials, who organized the conference, said districts shouldn't leave the job to state legislators.
"We can't sit back and watch what comes down the road from Washington and Tallahassee," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "We have to lead the way."
Of Florida's 67 districts, half planned to send at least two representatives to the conference — one from labor, one from management — which was funded with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The meeting comes nearly a year after Florida legislators tried to mandate aggressive changes, including merit pay for teachers and the abolishment of tenure for new teachers. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed that effort, but Gov. Rick Scott has said he would sign a similar bill.
Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough teachers union, said the meeting offers a response to Scott's call for teachers and unions to "come up with a plan" of their own.
"And I wish he were here to see it," she said, referring to Scott, who declined an invitation to speak. "I was so looking forward to spending time with him. I want to meet him."
Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, said conflict has been the norm lately in discussions about how to fix public schools.
"There's always someone on the sideline yelling, 'Fight, fight, fight!' " she said in a keynote address. "But it doesn't work in schools."
Hillsborough officials pointed with pride to the decades of labor-management collaboration that helped them land a $100 million Gates Foundation grant last year to overhaul their teacher evaluation and support systems.
But others in the crowd said Hillsborough's reforms didn't look so easy to copy.
Hernando County superintendent Bryan Blavatt wondered how Elia's district has maintained unity. He recalled efforts in other states where union partners recanted after tough changes kicked in, saying they "didn't really want it."
Elia said a unified response is critical. When complaints spring up at a school, both the district and union must show up together to put out the fire.
"It has to be something where you're in the same room together, and people can see that you're together on it," she added.
In other districts such as Broward County, the conversation has often come down to a far simpler issue: money. And with budgets tight during the recession, it has sometimes gotten ugly.
"We've done a pretty good job of beating each other up," said Pat Santeramo, president of the Broward teachers union. "We're at subzero right now."
Around 1,300 of his teachers were laid off in the spring as the district grappled with the loss of tax revenue.
While many were later rehired, Santeramo said the issues being discussed at the Hillsborough conference, such as performance pay and peer mentoring, seem pretty remote by comparison. Still, he said it makes sense for districts to come up with a solution, rather than have one imposed by the Legislature.
"I'm always willing to try," he added. "But we also need a willing partner on the other side. When you've been at war for three years, it's hard to stop."
"It's been tough," agreed his counterpart, Broward superintendent James Notter. "We've been two consecutive years at impasse, one declared by the union and one declared by the school district."
He said the conference offered an opportunity to "hear from the successful people," both in Hillsborough and nationally, and try to make a fresh start with his union.
"My commitment is to build that trust," Notter said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.