TAMPA — Students weren’t the only ones dawdling Tuesday morning outside Westchase Elementary School, idling away the minutes before the tardy bell would ring in another day of classes.
The 30 or so Westchase teachers seen drinking coffee and chatting before class are among hundreds of teachers across Hillsborough County protesting a planned salary freeze by "working the contract" this week — performing only the duties officially required of them in their employment contract with the school district.
Unlike their massive protest earlier this month at a School Board meeting, teachers didn’t hold handmade posters or urge passers-by to join in protest chants outside the building. Instead, the quiet cluster of teachers outside Westchase let their absence from the classroom do the talking.
"Anybody in public education gets in it to do the job for the kids, not to make money," said Missy Keller, an organizer with the teachers union who was at Westchase early Tuesday to lend support to the teachers as they answered questions from parents and talked with administrators. "It is very unnatural for them to work contractual hours. They’re so accustomed to going above and beyond."
Keller, a former educator who has spent 12 years working in Hillsborough schools, said the union’s actions are meant to urge district officials to honor a pay plan that calls for a $4,000 raise for roughly one-third of district teachers. Under the plan, salaries remain the same for three years then increase in the fourth if the teacher earns at least a satisfactory rating every year.
This is the third year Hillsborough County teachers have had to fight to receive the raises school district officials promised in their annual salary negotiations, Keller said. Performance bonuses, required by the state for the highest performers, are now half of what they were in 2014.
As this year’s negotiations stalled, teachers began holding marathon paper-grading sessions in shopping malls and other public places where people could see the work they do each day. Hundreds of teachers swarmed a School Board meeting to ask district officials to make good on their agreement. Before fall break, students at several schools staged walkouts in solidarity with their teachers, in some instances receiving in-school suspensions for their actions.
Tuesday was only the second day the teachers union has urged all 14,000 of their members to strictly limit any work they do to the letter of their contract. A message posted to the union website and Facebook page asked parents for patience, warning that "working the contract" means there will be no grading, lesson planning or other homework once they leave campus.
"This action is not intended to harm students and our members will prioritize teaching and learning," the post said. "Quite the contrary, our action is to call attention to the need for our district to re-examine its priorities and actually put students and educators first."
At Riverview High School on Tuesday, Scott Larue, 16, and his sister noticed that teachers seemed to disappear exactly 20 minutes after the students’ 3 p.m. dismissal — the time their contract says their workday should end.
"On a normal day, there would be tons of teachers walking around outside, watching the parking lot, talking to students," Larue said. "The teachers don’t really talk to us about their protests, but the students themselves are hearing about it on social media and word of mouth. I can’t think of any other time I’ve seen students support teachers like they did with the walkout."
District officials argue the contract’s language expressly states the plan should be renegotiated if there is not enough money to pay out the salary increases. This year, superintendent Jeff Eakins has said that money needs to be spent on other needs, such as building maintenance and air conditioning repairs.
The school district has raised employee pay for the past four years, officials argue, and Hillsborough teachers are the second highest paid in the Tampa Bay area.
"Other parents may think the teachers are just crying about their paychecks, but what they don’t understand is there’s no way to do that job in an eight-hour window," said Maria Anderson, a former high school teacher and mentor with the school district whose 7-year-old attends Symmes Elementary School in Riverview. "Even in my son’s second-grade class, there is no way a teacher could grade all of their assignments, finish the required student assessments and plan an entire curriculum in that amount of time while still engaging with 19 kids."
Anderson spent 10 years teaching science classes at Durant and Riverview high schools before spending four years as a "teacher mentor" for the school district. But last year, citing its dwindling savings, the school district eliminated Anderson’s job and others to help pay for necessary expenses like building repairs.
"In previous years, the district has said they didn’t have money for the raises, but they still found a way to give us something," Anderson said.
On Tuesday, one student came to Westchase Elementary with a plastic sandwich bag of wadded $1 bills for his teacher, telling her, "Don’t worry, I’ll bring more tomorrow."
"The kids understand," Keller said. "These teachers give their all."
The next bargaining session is scheduled for Tuesday.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.