Pasco County elementary school teachers are sounding upbeat about a possible resolution to their nearly 2-year-old complaint that they've had too much paperwork and testing, and too many meetings, dumped on them.
About a dozen members of the United School Employees of Pasco elementary workload task force spent nearly 90 minutes Tuesday evening talking details with superintendent Kurt Browning and assistant superintendent Amelia Larson. They walked away saying they felt listened to for the first time in ages.
"I told them we had even more accomplished in this one meeting than in the previous two years since this grievance started," Deer Park Elementary second grade teacher Kathy Kennedy said.
The administration indicated a willingness to eliminate some tests and meetings, she said, and to create consistent work expectations for teachers in all the district's 46 elementary schools.
"It was very encouraging," Kennedy said.
The USEP filed a class action grievance on behalf of more than 1,300 elementary teachers back in October. It came after months of informal talks over mounting concerns that too many demands were being placed on teachers' time, keeping them from planning and teaching.
Former superintendent Heather Fiorentino heard the formal complaint just before leaving office in November. One of her final actions in office was to reject teachers' request for relief.
Union officials filed an appeal soon after. But they agreed to delay any School Board hearing until Browning and his team could assess the situation and decide whether they would address the issues at hand without board intervention.
Browning signaled early in his term that he wanted to look at exactly what the district could do on its own, and where its hands were tied by federal and state mandates. "Teachers need to be able to teach," he said in January, shortly after his first sit-down with USEP executives.
West Zephyrhills Elementary third grade teacher Lisa Mazza said she was impressed that Larson came to Tuesday's meeting armed with a list of tests and who requires them, and took the time to hear teachers' views on the value of each to the instructional process.
"Right from the get-go it was, 'Let's work together,' " Mazza said. "That was a drastic change."
She was so impressed with the session that she emailed both Browning and Larson to thank them, saying she felt like she was "finally being treated like a professional."
Larson said she received notes from two other teachers with similar compliments. She said she and Browning found the meeting "very productive," adding that they are hopeful to find a workable answer to the complaint. She spoke with principals about the opportunities and challenges Wednesday afternoon.
No agreements are in place just yet. The administration still has more specifics to hash through and then a written set of recommendations to create.
But the optimism was evident.
"It was a breath of fresh air to hear what Mr. Browning is willing to consider and possibly do," USEP business representative Jim Ciadella said. "He's taking us seriously. If it's resolved in the next 30 days, I'll feel very good about this. If it goes past that, we'll have problems."
Kennedy shared that "time will tell" view, saying that Browning now has the opportunity to earn some of the trust he seeks from the district's teachers. One key hurdle toward that goal already seemed to be gone, Mazza suggested.
"We had the top-down approach for way too long," she said. "This is really the first time to hear, 'What can we do to support you?' It's nice to be a classroom teacher again."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.