Pasco teachers' rally turns into a show of relief over veto of SB 6

Oakstead Elementary teachers Jeannette Evans, from left,  Alicia McGlothin and Mary DeYoung thank Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday in Land O’Lakes.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

Oakstead Elementary teachers Jeannette Evans, from left, Alicia McGlothin and Mary DeYoung thank Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday in Land O’Lakes.

LAND O'LAKES — At noon Thursday, workers in the United School Employees of Pasco office huddled around a 17-inch screen to take in the news. Teachers on lunch break at Northwest Elementary School in Hudson watched on television. Staff in the district office monitored the Internet for the latest.

Gov. Charlie Crist had vetoed Senate Bill 6, sweeping legislation sponsored by Pasco's own state Rep. John Legg that would have overhauled the way that teachers are paid, evaluated, contracted and certified.

"It just brought such morale back to teachers," said Aubrey Ambrosio, a Northwest teacher whom Crist had called seeking advice in the days leading to his decision. "It is a sigh of relief."

Relief.

That's the word, more than "happy" or "joy" or any other, that Pasco teachers used to describe their feelings for the governor's veto against the prevailing sentiment of his party's leadership.

"I wasn't surprised. I was relieved," said Mary DeYoung, a kindergarten teacher at Oakstead Elementary School, as she waved a "thank you" sign at the corner of U.S. 41 and State Road 54 Thursday afternoon.

Teachers hastily altered their "Veto SB 6" signs to thank Crist after his announcement. They turned their "shout out" rally, which drew more than 100 teachers in three locations, into a celebration of sorts — one that received lots of honks and waves of support from passersby.

"Congratulations!" one man shouted from his car. "I'm going to vote for the guy. I wasn't until he did that."

DeYoung and her colleagues cheered him on.

"I am very relieved that he listened to the people," she said. "They need to get with the people who it will affect."

That message came through clearly in Crist's explanation of his veto.

"Tens of thousands of Floridians have reached out to me asking for a veto of SB 6 and instead address the important goal of improving education in a more deliberative and open manner," Crist wrote.

"Should the Legislature decide to go back to the drawing board, I believe it is critical that they heed the call of Floridians."

Local lawmakers seemed to be on board with that call.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a Crist supporter who voted for SB 6, called Crist "courageous" for his veto.

"I think after today people realize they have a governor that watches out for them," said Fasano, the Senate's president pro tempore. "He did exactly what people asked him to do, and he did it because he thought it was the right thing to do."

While Fasano continued to express support for SB 6, he also acknowledged that the majority of Floridians that he has heard from — not just teachers, but people from all walks of life — saw problems with the bill, problems that he agreed could be fixed in a next attempt to implement education reform.

For instance, he said he would back proposals to let teachers receive added pay based on their advanced degrees, something SB 6 would have done away with.

State Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who chairs the House Education Policy Council, lamented that the governor's veto sent the Legislature back to square one.

"What we were discouraged with is during the process, he didn't share his problems with the bill until it was too late," Weatherford said.

Still, it's the governor's prerogative to veto any bill, he said. In the future, he suggested, more collaboration with teachers, principals, school boards and superintendents might allow lawmakers to find a way to make performance pay and other aspects of the bill a reality.

Many of those groups voiced their concerns loudly as the bill wound its way through committees. They, too, sounded hopeful that another try might mean more chance for input.

"I've always had concerns with Senate Bill 6, especially the fiscal ramifications that it was going to have for our district in the difficult economic times our district is already facing," said Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino, who communicated regularly with lawmakers during the debates. "I just hope any future legislation the Legislature provides will be fair, equitable and fully funded for us."

That issue of funding was key for School Board member Kathryn Starkey, too. The bill called for districts to set aside 5 percent of their budgets to pay for new tests, performance pay and related aspects of the bill.

"Now our budget workshop will have to deal with only a $50 million hole instead of a $100 million hole," said Starkey, who supported pieces of the legislation but not all of it. "That will make life a little easier."

She believed many people had misconceptions about the bill that made its approval more difficult than it had to be. But from that she found a positive note.

"People are much more engaged in education now than they were before this bill," Starkey said. "It lays a great framework for discussion of where this state is and where it needs to go and how it will get there."

Bill sponsor Legg, a Port Richey Republican, was a bit less charitable. He said he disagreed with Crist's message, and held firm to the idea that schools need changing. He said there are plenty of laws on the books requiring much of what the bill wanted to clarify, such as using student performance for teacher evaluations, and he suggested that the next step should be forcing districts to follow those laws.

"They are on the books but not complied with," Legg said. "I'm going to work to ensure that those are enforced."

His tough words couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of the teachers who helped organize the veto pressure as they publicly thanked the governor.

They made clear they understood the move for more accountability isn't over. But for now, it's not an immediate threat anymore.

"This reform movement is definitely coming back," said Joe Watson, music teacher at Oakstead Elementary School. "That's why we're out here. We're making sure the Senate and House know we're ready for it, and we want to be part of the discussion."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco teachers' rally turns into a show of relief over veto of SB 6 04/15/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 15, 2010 10:02pm]

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