Tenure often determines if Florida teachers keep jobs

Shelly Morrow missed more than 20 days of teaching last fall after emergency surgery. So when evaluation time rolled around, the remedial math teacher at Chamberlain High in Tampa feared her lengthy absence might make her vulnerable to an unlikely one-two punch.

Budget cuts and tenure.

Given historic cuts to education funding in Florida, teachers everywhere are anxious. But those without tenure have bigger targets on their backs because when it comes to layoffs, union contracts force districts to put a premium on seniority.

"I was worried I would not be renominated" for another annual contract, said Morrow, 48, who once had tenure in Hillsborough but lost it after moving to Pinellas and back a few years ago. "It was a nerve-racking time."

Morrow found out last week that she received good marks on her evaluation and district officials told her she gets to come back next year.

But hundreds, if not thousands, of nontenured teachers in Florida may not be so lucky.

To save money, districts all over the state are culling nontenured teachers — most of them young and new to teaching. The most recent example is in Hernando, where district officials told 115 nontenured teachers last week that their annual contracts will not be renewed for next year.

"There's definitely some up-and-coming stars that have to be let go," said Hernando superintendent Wayne Alexander. "You're really hamstrung by the contractual agreements. That's not just in Florida. That's across the country."

In Hillsborough and Pasco, there has been no indication that a mass layoff of nontenured teachers is coming. In Pinellas, officials have made a concerted effort to keep those teachers. But a lot depends on how the education budget shakes out in Tallahassee over the next few weeks, said Ron Stone, the associate superintendent for human resources in Pinellas.

In Florida, teachers typically are hired on annual contracts for three years before being awarded "professional service contracts," which give them special protections from firing. Such protections — often referred to as "tenure" — are under fire nationally from both liberal and conservative education reformers.

Much of the criticism stems from the difficulty districts face in trying to fire bad teachers. But with school budgets fraying, critics also point to the role that tenure plays in pushing out young teachers.

"Now you have the unfortunate circumstance of principals and superintendents saying, 'I would really like to keep you, you're the best teacher in the school. But unfortunately, (another teacher) has tenure,' " said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a former superintendent. "He shows up late, he leaves early … and generally he's a slug. But he has tenure. So here's your pink slip."

Gaetz voted for a bill this week that would replace tenure with a series of shorter-term contracts. Pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, the bill squeaked through two committees, but drew strong criticism from Democrats and a handful of Republicans.

"The system needs tweaking in this particular arena, but not dismantling," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "I don't think we should be killing a gnat with a cannon."

Supporters say tenure helps draw people into teaching — and that without it, Florida's teacher recruitment efforts will suffer.

Killing tenure also would not guarantee that districts make firing decisions based on quality or need, they say.

For instance, some top-notch veterans might get the boot simply because they make too much money.

In Hillsborough, officials have told about 150 veteran teachers who are on annual contracts that their jobs are ending.

All were retirees who returned to the classroom at higher salaries than younger, nontenured teachers.

Without tenure, other stellar teachers might be fired because they challenged a rogue principal, said Joe Vitalo, the teachers union president in Hernando. He said some of the nontenured teachers being let go there have better evaluations than some of the nontenured teachers who are staying on.

"It comes down to who I like, not who can do what job," Vitalo said.

Some districts, including Hernando, hope that many of their nontenured teachers will be rehired if the Legislature can keep core education funding from further cuts.

Young teachers bring energy and excitement, said Alexis Tibbets, the superintendent in Okaloosa County, which told more than 300 nontenured teachers that their annual contracts would not be renewed.

"It's killing me to have to let some of them go," she said.

Times staff writer Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Tenure often determines if Florida teachers keep jobs 04/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 13, 2009 10:49am]

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