LAND O'LAKES — For nearly two years, Pasco County elementary school teachers have complained about their increasingly burdensome workload.
They've spoken of added paperwork, data entry and review, student testing and staff meetings. All of it, they've said, has taken away from instruction.
Informal conversations with district administrators at first looked promising, but so far have yielded no resolution. So the United School Employees of Pasco has filed two class-action grievances seeking relief, on behalf of more than 1,300 teachers from 43 of the county's 46 elementary schools.
"We believe the continuing escalation of workload for these teachers is unfair," Jim Ciadella, USEP business representative, said Tuesday. "Yes, they are working beyond their contracted hours, yes, because they are dedicated. But also because the workload is increasing. We have been asking, what comes off the proverbial plate? Nothing."
Demands placed upon elementary schools and teachers have changed, and everyone is working hard to meet those expectations and hold themselves accountable, said David Scanga, assistant superintendent for elementary schools. The key is to find ways to achieve this goal without placing too many stresses on the staff, he added.
"We just have to wait to talk and see if we can find ways to work more efficiently, but we also have to be effective in what we do," Scanga said. "We're looking for as many ways as we can to work smarter."
The union has made specific requests for how to improve conditions.
First and foremost, it seeks to eliminate any student tests or assessments that are not required by law or School Board policy. This would allow teachers to determine which tools they need to best gauge student progress.
"Even our governor is saying we're assessing too much," Ciadella said.
He also noted Gov. Rick Scott's recent creation of a task force to eliminate bureaucracy and red tape that stand in teachers' way. That committee, which comprises seven superintendents, has yet to make its recommendations.
Other items the USEP is seeking include:
• Eliminating school-based meetings, professional development and professional learning communities not required by law or School Board.
• Requiring coaches and resource teachers to assist classroom teachers in performing required assessments and data entry.
• Establishing an early release day quarterly to give teachers added time to complete required duties while on the clock.
• Stop requiring teachers to attend after-hours events.
• Providing each teacher with two compensatory days off by the end of 2012-13.
Ciadella said the teachers are not asking to escape state or federal mandates. Rather, he stressed, they want to get rid of the prescriptive and non-mandated work that is done at the discretion of the district or school.
"We are saying no now to a lot of these things," Ciadella said. "We need to allow teachers to focus on what they were hired to do, which is teach students."
Scanga said the discussion about reducing tests and meetings has been ongoing. Some of the other union proposals are new, he said, and each one carries a price tag that will have to be considered moving ahead.
The sides have 10 days to work out a hearing schedule. The session could take place within the next few weeks. If an agreement is not reached, the issue could go to the School Board and possibly to binding arbitration.
The USEP does not commonly file such large-scale grievances. In recent years, only a handful arose, including complaints about the implementation of Learning Focused Strategies at Hudson Elementary, the decision to not allow bus drivers to drink water while driving, and an effort to hold employees financially responsible for electronic equipment.
USEP president Lynne Webb said that after the latter two grievances, superintendent Heather Fiorentino asked the union to give the administration more advance notice about possible problems so they could try to work through them prior to any formal complaint. That's why USEP leaders came to the School Board earlier this year to raise concerns about high school textbook availability and changes to some schools' grading systems, Webb said.
Those issues are still in discussions.
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.