TAMPA — Officially, contract negotiations between the Hillsborough County school district and teachers union ended nine months ago.
But the talking didn't stop on Aug. 31 when the School Board approved the annual agreement on pay and working conditions.
In February, the two sides agreed that teacher evaluations can play a larger role in deciding which teachers get transferred in the event of downsizing at high-poverty schools. On Friday, they were still debating how many poor classroom observation marks it should take for a teacher to earn an unsatisfactory evaluation.
Officials say they have always chatted between the formal contract negotiations, which must be open to the public under Florida's open meetings law.
But now, as Hillsborough's teacher evaluation system grows tougher under a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the stakes are rising. Many teachers who once earned satisfactory or outstanding marks will likely see their ratings drop, putting them on a path to losing pay or even their jobs.
Suddenly those mid-year meetings between labor and management have moved beyond mundane questions, like pay for parent-conference days, even as officials insist they're not meeting formally.
"Not to negotiate," said deputy superintendent Dan Valdez.
"There's negotiating with a little 'n' and Negotiating with a big 'N,' " said union president Jean Clements. "We talk all the time, but it's not contract stuff."
Both said their current talks on the definition of an "unsatisfactory" teacher evaluation were driven by the pressure of the Gates reforms.
Under that system, principals and peer evaluators will determine 60 percent of teachers' ratings through classroom observations. The remaining 40 percent, based on student test scores, won't be known until the fall — and it could scramble some teachers' scores.
"We're in a state of flux because of all these changes," Valdez said.
Despite that uncertainty, the two sides have reached a tentative agreement on how many "Requires Action" scores teachers would need to earn on the 22-item classroom observation sheet in order to earn an unsatisfactory total evaluation.
But neither side would say exactly what number they had agreed on.
Clements said it couldn't be just the principal, or just the peer evaluator, who tipped the balance. And a teacher couldn't be fired for a single year of unsatisfactory performance.
Valdez said any agreement on the issue will get raised again during formal contract negotiations this summer.
"Every item goes to the School Board," he added. "Some go to the board immediately, some go to the board in the summer."
But some board members expressed uneasiness with the idea that the union and district negotiators could reach an agreement in the middle of winter or spring, but they might not hear about it until July or August.
That's what could happen with a February agreement governing the district's high-poverty Renaissance Schools. The two sides agreed that "factors other than seniority" may be considered if a teacher needs to be transferred due to downsizing at a school.
Chairwoman Doretha Edgecomb said she had no problem with the idea, but voiced surprise that the School Board and public had not been told about the agreement in open session.
"If it has become a legal document, the board probably ought to know about it," said member Candy Olson. "It doesn't look good."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.