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  1. Pasco

Pasco teachers 'migrating as fast as they can,' union leader says

With the Pasco County school district's budget up for approval Tuesday, several teachers stepped up to tell the School Board that its 2.65 percent raise offer, while appreciated, wasn't enough.

"It is too meager to make a difference," said Shady Hills Elementary teacher Michael Galletta, who proclaimed to bleed pencil lead. "We struggle every day."

He and others urged the board to dip into the district's reserves and boost the pay proposal. Pasco's average teacher pay is 54th among 67 districts in the state, United School Employees of Pasco president Kenny Blankenship noted, and it's causing educators to take jobs elsewhere "as fast as they can."

(The districts with lower average pay, according to the state Department of Education, are primarily small rural ones: Holmes, Gadsden, Union, Madison, Columbia, Wakulla, Calhoun, Liberty, Franklin, Dixie, Jefferson, Alachua and Hamilton. As one teacher pointed out, even Hernando at about a third of the size of Pasco pays more.)

"Although pay is important," Blankenship continued, "it isn't the only thing."

He raised the USEP's ongoing concern that teachers on annual contract -- close to half of them after state law changed so new hires could not get continuing agreements -- could be released even if they get "effective" or "highly effective" evaluation ratings.

"Any reason for nonrenewing an effective or highly effective teacher is equine excrement," Blankenship told the board.

The union is fighting to get that changed, against the administration's staunch refusal to go that route. Other Florida districts have offered such protections, but Pasco leaders contend it would violate state law.

To drive home the point, Blankenship related the story of Stephanie Barnes. An eight-year teacher in Pasco, most recently at Lake Myrtle Elementary, Barnes received a highly effective rating in 2014-15. She embraced leadership roles, Blankenship said, took pride in her work, students and school.

When she ran into areas of concern from her school administrators, he shared, she responded with enthusiasm to improve her performance. Yet at the end of 2015-16, Barnes was not renewed.

After that, Blankenship said, Barnes was unable to get another teaching job in Pasco. When she turned to Hillsborough County, however, she "immediately" got a job teaching at about $8,000 more per year.

"How is this in the best interest of students?" he wondered. "It's not. It's not."

Barnes, who attended Tuesday's meeting but did not speak, had this to say in an April letter to the district, which Blankenship gave board members Tuesday:

"I am sad that administration has chosen to not renew my contract for next school year. I love my job, and feel that I have proven myself again-and-again as a successful teacher. I had asked administration during the Non-Reappointment meeting what it was they needed me to do in order to prove myself to have this letter rescinded. Administration acknowledged in the meeting of Non-Reappointment that they were not concerned with me correcting things that have been addressed as they felt that I did a very good job correcting everything they have noted in both letters they have addressed to me, which is inconsistent with their stated reasons in the NonReappointment Letter.

"Their concern was based on their belief that I was unhappy at the school, and that I had been looking for other positions. I love what I do, and feel that I have a great rapport with my students. I see each student as unique and work very hard to help each one grow in their way for them to become successful. My students have shown great growth this year, and that can only happen when I have devoted myself to my students and the classroom, which is something I strive for, and am committed to doing each and every day."

Board members did not respond. Blankenship promised to bring more stories like Barnes' to the board in the future, stating there are many more.

"Morale is the lowest I've seen" in years, Blankenship said, "and it's pitiful."