WESLEY CHAPEL — Jennifer Isley had options three years ago when choosing where to become a teacher.
She had connections in Minnesota and New York, two master's degrees, experience working in other aspects of education and a burning desire to help children bloom.
After assessing the possibilities, Isley picked Wiregrass Ranch High School in Pasco County. She took an annual contract, understanding that after three years she could earn a professional services contract if things worked out.
Principal Ray Bonti said Isley and the many other freshly minted teachers he recruited all deserve long-term deals. His school has more teachers on annual contract — 34 — than any other in Pasco County.
"They are everything the Legislature is identifying as excellent teachers," he said.
Yet lawmakers are considering a bill (HB 7087) this week that would make it so teachers currently on annual contracts could never land a multiyear contract.
Teachers union leaders have called the measure a betrayal.
"They were hired with the expectation that they were going to get a professional services contract," said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco. "Senate Bill 736 (which dramatically changes teachers' terms of employment) did not indicate there was going to be any retroactivity. In fact, they made great pains of telling teachers it's only for new hires."
House leaders distance themselves from the talk of deception.
"I don't personally believe it was miscommunicated or in any way deceptive," said Rep. Kelli Stargel, the Lakeland Republican who is sponsoring the legislation.
SB 736 stated that any teachers currently on a professional services contract may keep it, Stargel said. It made no provisions for teachers currently on annual contracts to get those longer deals, she said.
"Anybody who did not hold a professional services contract does not have the ability to get a professional services contract," she said.
Rep. Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who guided SB 736 through the House, said the Stargel bill does nothing other than solidify the terms of his bill, which Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a week ago.
"It literally is not a trick or anything," he said.
That offers little comfort to teachers like Isley, who teaches six periods of English a day without a planning period and then instructs courses at Hillsborough Community College after that.
"I work hard, and yet I still have this twinge," she said. "Do I get caught up in a loophole? I'm not so sitting on my laurels that I don't think it couldn't be me" who doesn't get renewed. "I don't think it will be me. … But there's the thought that something could happen, and what would I do?"
Her biggest frustration was not so much facing an annual contract and pay based on performance, but rather knowing that so many of the details behind the new system remain unanswered and confusing. Maybe it would be easier to accept, she said, if the system were designed and well explained in advance.
Wiregrass Ranch journalism teacher Dustin Quarrella, also in his third annual contract, shared that perspective.
"What is sad about it is the people that might leave as a result now," Quarrella said. "I don't have to be a teacher. None of us do. … My fear isn't for myself but for other individuals in my boat who might say, 'Enough is enough.' "
Ken Tardif, who worked in the private sector almost 14 years before becoming an elementary school teacher last year, said he understands the state's move on teacher contracts. What he doesn't understand is why the state would want to add uncertainty to teachers' jobs, as it can negatively affect children.
"If I were an administrator … I wouldn't want a teacher who in the back of their mind at the beginning of the year is wondering if they are going to have a job next year," said Tardif, who teaches at Gulf Trace Elementary School in Holiday. "The most important thing is, they need to be there for the kids in their class, enriching their education. Even if it's just 5 percent of their thought, or 2 percent, it shouldn't be there."
Pasco County schools have 864 teachers on annual contracts. The USEP is joining other local teacher associations in fighting the bill, which is scheduled for a final vote in the House today.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.