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Union and school officials report progress on how to evaluate nontenured teachers.

Out of chaos and discord, a little good may come.

Two weeks ago, things could hardly have been worse for the Hernando County schools. State funding was uncertain. The teachers union had called for the superintendent's firing over the manner of his cost-cutting and staff reductions. A School Board vote to reverse those cuts had thrown the budget into disarray.

But over the past week, the district and the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association have forged new ground.

Officials on both sides say they're working to secure jobs for teachers who had been nonrenewed last month, provided they are qualified.

And both sides say they are making progress on developing a new system to evaluate nontenured teachers and, if necessary, fire them. They are vowing to end a system that had allowed highly rated teachers to be dismissed for reasons that seemed arbitrary, subjective or politically motivated.

"We need to provide more guidance for second- and third-year teachers," superintendent Wayne Alexander said. "We need to be doing earlier intervention. Something good will come of this."

To be sure, the School Board will face an array of challenging issues when it convenes at 2 p.m. Tuesday for a workshop and at 7 p.m. for a board meeting.

It will discuss Alexander's annual evaluation and the process to find his replacement when his contract ends June 2010. It will also consider hiring an assistant superintendent to help provide leadership of the school system, which has 23,000 students.

It is likely that an assistant superintendent would help ease the transition when Alexander returns to New England, where, for personal reasons, he has been seeking a new position.

Proud of record

Alexander said the person in the assistant's job would direct curriculum and many of the student services overseen by executive director Sonya Jackson, who will lead Nature Coast Technical High School next fall. Her position would remain unfilled, and the district would reduce its administrative expenses by eliminating other central office jobs.

He acknowledged the anger that previous rounds of restructuring and teacher nonrenewals had prompted, but said those moves were made with the best of intentions.

And overall, he's proud of the work the school system has accomplished in his short tenure at the helm.

"I've had the support of 3,600 employees to make things happen," Alexander said. "People can be angry (over changes), but you have to be strong. Look at the body of work, at what we've accomplished for kids."

While the teachers union sharply criticized his methods in April, the focus last week was on teacher performance and ways of accurately measuring it, teachers union president Joe Vitalo said.

District officials have not given away their right to dismiss nontenured teachers during their first three years, and teachers will need hard evidence of their value to keep their jobs, he added.

"They have to be qualified and high-performing to be reappointed," Vitalo said. "Their classrooms need to have been showing success."

What's changing is the way they will prove it. Where second- and third-year teachers once got just a single evaluation, now there is talk of two. A point system that both sides called subjective would be abandoned.

"They might allow another person to independently evaluate them," business services director Heather Martin said. "We are open to ideas, (but) we are not going to give up our rights within statute, either."

'Changing a culture'

The lack of a clear, thorough evaluation system meant teachers with above-average ratings were losing their jobs without warning or explanation, Vitalo said.

"We're going to totally revamp our evaluation system," he said. "How do we deal with friction? How do we talk about transfers? It's a process we're going to be working on throughout the summer. You're talking about changing a culture."

As that process unfolds, the district will be learning just how much money it has to run the schools next fall.

About $5.1 million in federal stimulus funds will help balance the budget over the next two years, allowing the district to fund additional jobs.

But enrollment is already down by about 500 state-funded students this year, and tax revenues are plunging. And it's far from clear whether the budget state legislators pass this spring will be sustainable through another year of recession.

"I think we're still on shaky ground," Alexander said. "The last few years, (the state) has reduced our budget twice. The best indication of the future is the past. They'll cut it again."

Fast Facts

School Board meets Tuesday

The School Board will face an array of challenging issues when it convenes Tuesday at 2 p.m. for a workshop and at 7 p.m. for a board meeting.