LAND O'LAKES — Nancy Richey became a teacher five years ago, after a career in publishing, because she believed she could make a difference for children.
She has only seen her stress level rise.
"The mounting workload has become, for lack of a better word, ridiculous," Richey told superintendent Heather Fiorentino during a grievance hearing Thursday evening. "When we come in, we are not feeling effective anymore. ... We are not serving our kids in a just way, because of all the planning."
The Hudson Elementary instructor was one of more than 1,300 Pasco County elementary school teachers to file a formal complaint that their work conditions have grown too burdensome, to the detriment of their actual instruction.
Many of the actions at the schools, such as interrupting planning time for training or meetings, violate the teachers' contract, the United School Employees of Pasco contended.
It has taken its toll on teachers personally, as well.
Richey said her weight has risen along with her blood pressure as she faces the demands of meetings, testing and other requirements that eat into the workday or lead to work after hours.
"Let teachers actually teach," she said.
She was not alone.
Several teachers shared their experiences of rising anxiety and stress as they take work home just to keep up with the increasing demands that take up their planning and instruction.
"You can't live this job 24 hours a day seven days a week. That is what it comes down to," Anclote Elementary teacher Jennifer Wray told Fiorentino, adding that after 26 years she can no longer encourage young people to enter teaching.
The USEP filed its grievance after two years of discussions with the administration to relieve some of the burden, business representative Jim Ciadella told the superintendent.
It appeared at one point that the district had several ideas to ease the load, he said. But then many of the recommendations were encouraged, not mandated, which did not help, Ciadella argued.
"When it came to taking any real action, we felt your action did not meet your rhetoric," he said.
Ciadella reviewed several parts of the teacher contract that he contended were violated by the district's actions.
After the USEP's presentation, the administration offered its perspective.
David Scanga, assistant superintendent for elementary schools, did not deny that stress is up as schools strive to meet increasing state and federal accountability demands.
He contended, however, that the schools have been attempting to make the work more efficient and less redundant. He asked several principals to offer examples, which he said are similar to the efforts being made in every school.
Scott Mitchell, principal of Watergrass Elementary, said he had essentially eliminated staff meetings, using email instead. He had streamlined committees and their work and increased the amount of planning time for teachers.
Woodland Elementary principal Kim Poe said she had made it easier for teachers to jointly plan, eliminating the need for individual written lesson plans, for instance.
"We are trying to find ways to work smarter, not harder, and utilize the time we have to work in that school day," Poe said.
Scanga said he had not been aware of some of the specific complaints that the USEP had at individual schools, adding that he would have addressed those quickly had he known.
At the same time, though, he stressed that the work must change as the demands increase.
Fiorentino asked questions sporadically throughout the hearing, aiming to figure out whether the work teachers complained about is required and by whom. She also had department directors come forward to explain exactly what materials they had been promoting and whether those are mandated or if teachers have flexibility in using them.
The USEP suggested that many of the tools seem mandatory, even if they are not. It has asked for a reduction in non-mandated tests and meetings.
Fiorentino said she would consider all the evidence and testimony and have a response within five working days, as required. She said she would try to balance teacher needs and principal accountability, while focusing on what's best for students. "I will do what I think is the fairest thing for everyone," she said.
If the union is unhappy with the result, it may appeal to the School Board.