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Tampa Bay school districts pursue federal money, but most teachers' unions balk

If Tampa Bay school districts win a piece of the $700 million federal stimulus money Florida is seeking, they will get it largely without the support of local teachers' unions.

As a state deadline passed Tuesday, school districts across Tampa Bay signed on to Florida's controversial Race to the Top application. But the Hillsborough teacher's union was the only union to join them, after crafting a local agreement that resolved its worries about money and ratification by members.

Union president Jean Clements said Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith's aggressive pursuit of the grant may have pushed many districts away from reforms they're willing to consider. "He has hurt us a great deal, because it's caused a lot of trust issues," she said.

But Board of Education Chairman T. Willard Fair blasted the unions, accusing them of potentially killing Florida's chances to win a piece of the $4.35 billion federal grant because of opposition to performance pay.

"You have too many teachers who are in the twilight of their careers who are simply not prepared to work as hard or as differently as is going to be required going forward," he said.

By Tuesday evening just five unions statewide had joined about 50 districts in applying, according to the Department of Education. The deadline was midnight.

Under Race to the Top, the federal government is offering the money to states that agree to move toward common learning standards and tie teacher pay to student performance on tests. Hillsborough could gain up to $24.4 million and Pinellas could win $14.8 million, while Pasco and Hernando could win $8.2 million and $2.2 million respectively.

Smith said union support was a vital part of the state's application, and sent memos to districts promising flexibility and local control.

But local union officials said they felt pressure to pursue all the reforms at once, with Florida pushing a more restrictive application than even the federal government had recommended.

"It's not a message of collaboration," said Lynne Webb, president of the Pasco teacher's union.

Even some school boards had mixed feelings.

"The whole idea of dangling this carrot in front of school districts saying, 'Take it now or you won't get anything' is asinine," said Hernando board member Sandra Nicholson, who reluctantly joined a 3-2 vote Tuesday in favor of pursuing the grant.

And the Pinellas School Board nearly reversed itself Tuesday after voting last week to pursue the federal money. "Let's not be afraid of change," said Pinellas board member Mary Brown.

Hillsborough district officials promised to sit down with the union and reach an agreement on contract changes that everyone could swallow. And if they fail, superintendent MaryEllen Elia told school board members, "Hillsborough can say we haven't reached agreement, and we can withdraw."

Times staff writers Ron Matus, Leonora LaPeter Anton and Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Tampa Bay school districts pursue federal money, but most teachers' unions balk 01/12/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 1:08am]
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