Hundreds of teachers in Pasco and Pinellas counties rallied on street corners and outside lawmakers' offices Friday, just days before the Florida Legislature meets to consider historic changes in how teachers are hired, fired, paid and evaluated.
The Tampa Bay events took place as teachers unions and other unions across the state are also ramping up outrage over legislative efforts to limit union power, require public employees to contribute to their pensions and cut education spending.
"The sharks are at the boat, and the teachers are tired of being the chum," said Pinellas teachers union president Kim Black.
Barbara Perez, 62, a third-grade teacher at Anona Elementary, was among more than 100 who gathered at Ulmerton Road and 66th Street in Largo. About 700 teachers in all rallied at three locations.
"It's going to be terrible," Perez said of proposed legislation and funding cuts. "Our children have accepted less and less and less, and (lawmakers) are going to try to do it again this year."
Teachers at the Largo intersection wore red, and many carried handmade signs, while motorists honked their horns in support.
"(Lawmakers are) putting more into testing rather than instruction and making testing rule what our kids are thinking," said Jodi Short, 56, who teaches at Fuguitt Elementary in Largo.
"Maybe they think they're well intentioned, but they're going about it in the wrong way," Short continued.
Chris O'Toole, 42, a head plant operator at Bayside High, said even though he's not a teacher, he's concerned about tying teacher pay and contracts to student performance.
"If a teacher's pay is based on how well students do on a standardized test, who's going to want to teach kids who don't do as well?" he said.
Pinellas teachers also rallied at McMullen-Booth Road and State Road 580 in Clearwater, and at Tyrone Boulevard and 66th Street in St. Petersburg.
In Pasco County, about 600 teachers attended three rallying spots. Even before the official 4 p.m. start, dozens dressed in red arrived in the parking lot outside state Rep. Will Weatherford's Wesley Chapel office, protest signs in hand.
"Stabbing us in our professional hearts," one sign proclaimed. "Tell legislators NO NO NO."
"Do the right thing, not the easy thing," another stated.
"I'm not angry. I'm excited about change," West Zephyrhills Elementary teacher Lisa Mazza said. "But I am a little bit confused that the people it involves the most aren't part of the process."
Longtime Pasco High science teacher Christina Page, meanwhile, had worries about the proposals to reduce state employees' retirement benefits.
Florida teachers already are among the lowest paid in the nation, Page said, having accepted those salaries with the expectation that their retirements would be covered. Now that is in jeopardy, she said.
That's unfair to teachers who work long hours, she said, often much longer than their contracts require, for no extra money.
"I love the children. I am here for the children," she said. "Treat us like professionals."
Teachers in Polk, Palm Beach, Columbia and Collier counties also planned rallies Friday, while teachers in Miami-Dade and St. Lucie counties were set to do the same today. Unions are also scheduled to rally around the state on Tuesday, the day the legislative session begins.
Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he would be out of town during the rally Friday. He said beforehand that he welcomed people taking the opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions on the teacher bills. But he rejected many criticisms of the legislation, which he said often misstate the content.
Two years of discussion, including more involvement of educators, has made the legislation better, Weatherford said. Now Florida must move from debate to implementation so schools continue to improve, he said.
"It's time to be bold and time to challenge the status quo," he said.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873. Jeffrey S. Solochek can reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614.