State Sen. Steve Wise looked over those gathered in Tallahassee for his workshop on teacher contracts and pay and tried to break the ice.
"You don't have to be nervous. We don't bite," Wise, the Jacksonville Republican who chairs the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee said.
"We're not going to yell at you or anything like that," he added.
And so it went last week as lawmakers got the ball rolling on the sequel to Senate Bill 6, the lightning-rod legislation from last year that struck fear into teachers, sparked protests statewide and was ultimately vetoed by former Gov. Charlie Crist.
But instead of quick votes and closed doors, this happened: Superintendents testified. Union leaders testified. A few rank-and-file teachers even testified — without a buzzer or gavel to cut them off mid-sentence.
"The best way to have good policy is to have good input from those who are affected," said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who heads the state superintendents association and sits on the committee with Wise.
Last year's ram-it-through experience — along with last year's election results — has many teachers expecting the worst with this year's still-undrafted version. But as several committees met last week on new legislation that will change how teachers are hired, fired, paid and evaluated, something was different: the tone.
At least for now.
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By week's end, even Democratic lawmakers were saying they see signs that maybe, just maybe, this year's SB 6 won't be like last year's.
"That really was much more than we expected," said Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, a member of the House K-20 Competitiveness Subcommittee. "I have all indications that (the process) will be different."
Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, welcomed the opportunity to participate in the legislative process. That just didn't happen last year, he said. Still, Pudlow retained a healthy dose of skepticism over whether the outreach is real, or just a show.
"They are seeking to listen now. Does that mean they're going to hear what people say, and that's going to shape the bill? That's the big question of the year," Pudlow said.
Wise said he's genuine. He's got plenty of questions — dilemmas, he called them — over critical matters such as how to evaluate all teachers fairly.
And getting answers from politicians rather than experts just didn't sit right with him.
So unlike the House leadership, which started its discussions from a proposal from Jeb Bush's Foundation for a Better Florida, Wise didn't invite foundation leaders to present at his committee. He invited educators.
For those who couldn't attend, he set up an e-mail account to receive their views. Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith, who also has met with several stakeholders, quickly praised the move on his blog.
"This is an awesome task," Wise said. "We want to do it right. We may not all agree. But we want to have serious input and discussion … not like last time."
Rep. Bill Proctor, the St. Augustine Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, said he also wants to expand the conversation beyond the usual suspects. He suggested that there has been a "considerable amount" of talk with teachers and other groups.
That's especially true because of negotiations over Race to the Top, the federal reform effort that includes many of the concepts that look headed into the new legislation. Most of Florida's teacher unions agreed to ideas such as differential pay as part of that $700 million grant project.
"I think it would be difficult for anyone to argue that there hasn't been widespread consultation with others on this issue, including teachers and the teachers union," since Crist vetoed SB 6, Proctor said.
He expected those Race to the Top agreements to figure prominently in the discussion on how Florida will change teacher contracts and pay schedules.
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Critics still don't like some of those ideas — maybe even many of them. But unlike last year, they're not expecting the bills to be presented in all-or-nothing fashion.
"I think there's going to be a sensitivity this year about what goes into this bill that there wasn't last year," said Rep. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, D-Deerfield Beach, another member of the House subcommittee. "How different? We don't know. Where different? Can't say. But I do get the feeling that it's not going to be the push we had last year. I really do feel we're going to have more discussion on it."
Over in the Senate, Sen. Larcenia Bullard, a Miami Democrat who sits on the Pre-K-12 Committee, said much the same thing after her committee heard from union leaders, national activists and several superintendents, including Hillsborough's MaryEllen Elia and Pasco's Heather Fiorentino.
"At the end, I was almost in tears," Bullard said. "What I wanted to see is just this: to see you all sitting down at the table, talking."
Rep. Dwight Bullard, also a Miami Democrat and the senator's son, figured the Republican-dominated Legislature might be seeking out input for fear of a backlash if people feel like they aren't being heard again. But he also said he didn't want to "get overly excited" before seeing the bill.
"You never know what it's going to look like," he said. "At the end of the day, we can have 1,000 meetings and someone can just come along and refile the bill from last year."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.