1. The Education Gradebook

Teacher shirts in Hillsborough strike a nerve when they advertise a church

TAMPA — More than 2,000 Hillsborough County public school teachers received T-shirts this week that advertise a megachurch with conservative values, fueling a backlash from some who said the gesture was inappropriate.

The back of the shirts say "Staff" in large letters, and underneath are the words, "In Partnership with Idlewild Baptist Church."

"We partner with a lot of faith-based organizations, not just this one," said school district spokeswoman Tanya Arja. "They care about our schools and our students, so we're proud of the partnership."

Teachers were not required to wear or even accept the shirts. But the giveaway drew negative reviews from several quarters, including a Democratic activist and the teachers' union. Critics say in distributing the shirts, the schools crossed a line by suggesting they endorse the church, and put teachers in the awkward position of deciding whether or not to take part.

"I'm not going to let this die because teachers can't speak up," said Susan Smith, state president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus. "It's inexcusable."

The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association contacted an attorney after hearing complaints from members at several schools in northwest Hillsborough.

"My hope is that people just didn't think before they made the decision, and that they will put a stop to this sort of thing," said executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins.

The 2,100 shirts represent the latest in a series of contributions from Idlewild, which has a sprawling campus in Lutz.

Starting with volunteer work five years ago at Just Elementary School, the church has purchased uniforms and bookbags for other low-income schools, some with money raised by children at its vacation Bible school, said Barry Chesney, minister of local missions.

The shirt idea came about when the church got a $75,000 corporate grant to help the schools. Chesney said the church wanted to do something for the suburban schools as well as those in the inner city.

He said it was the district's idea to include Idlewild's name and logo on the staff T-shirts. "It was just something we wanted to do to bless the schools," he said. "We have no agenda."

Smith and Baxter-Jenkins said, regardless of whose idea it was, it was poor judgment as teachers could feel pressured to wear the shirts even if they do not support the church's ideology.

"The same with children," said Smith. "Little kids look up to their teachers. So they're going to wonder, is my Catholic church not good enough? Is my Jewish synagogue not good enough?"

Arja likened the relationship to the one the district has with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization, which donates time and merchandise to schools.

But James Shaw, chairman of the legal panel for the Tampa area American Civil Liberties Union chapter, said the fact that Idlewild is a church makes the issue a constitutional one, suggesting the church is the school's preferred religious institution.