A union leader praises Hillsborough County school officials as teachers vote on a tentative contract. But she says Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature deserve raspberries. By Francis X. Gilpin "Right, then left," said Yvonne Lyons. The schoolteacher-turned-unionistwas instructing a reporter how to get back to the lobby of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association building after an office interview. "That's it," said Lyons, adding a touch of sarcasm to her encouragement. "You could pass the FCAT." The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, one of those neat little indicators of worthiness in public education nowadays, could be the biggest hoax on Sunshine State schools since the lottery. But it makes politicians and, to a lesser degree, parents feel better. So skeptical teachers have shelved the old curriculum and devote much of the school day to prepping pupils for the end-all-and-be-all exam. This rote exercise has produced much smarter kids than the dunces that Hillsborough schools used to graduate. The standardized test scores tell us so. The 2000-01 FCAT scores were better than the state averages in all grades, Superintendent Earl Lennard reported this month.
Holding administrators and teachers accountable for their performance, just like students, doesn't faze Lyons. "We have a long way to go in Hillsborough County. Every school district does," said the director of the teachers union in the Bay area's biggest school system. "Yes, everybody needs to be accountable. We want high-quality teachers in the classroom. We have children and grandchildren ourselves. So that's not an issue with us." The issue with teachers is the new money for education that was promised if test scores went up. State funding has yet to match the accountability rhetoric from Tallahassee. Per-student spending in the state didn't keep up with inflation during the 1990s, according to the Florida Education Association. The budget will only get worse in the lean years ahead.
Along with their students, teachers suffer the consequences. The gap between state and national average teacher pay doubled during the last decade.
Occasional bonuses, like this year's $850, grate more than gratify teachers, whose starting annual pay hovers around $30,000 in the best Florida districts.
Lame-duck Education Commissioner Charlie Crist said the token dollars show teachers that they are valued. "If they really valued teachers," said Lyons, "they would have put it into our salary schedule so we could build on it over the years and count it toward retirement."
Where have the state budget surpluses gone? During the past two years, lawmakers granted more than $1.5-billion in tax breaks to some of the least-taxed affluent Americans. "They've given away tons of money with the intangibles tax cut," said Lyons. "I'm sure there are some people who thought that was a tremendous thing. But I don't have any friends who benefited."
On the local level, at least in Tampa, officials have been more enlightened.
School board members acted on criticism of their top-heavy management, said Lyons. Their 1995-96 administrative spending equaled nearly 15 percent of the instructional budget, exceeding a 13.4 percent state average.
"There was a time when we had supervisors out the yin-yang," said Lyons. The organizational chart has been flattened and the bureaucratic ranks thinned, she said.
Just as important, Lyons said, teachers have been invited to participate in improving the educational atmosphere.
Union representatives sit in on interview days when district managers, like their peers across the country, scramble to fill classroom vacancies. Dedicated instructors are scarcer since trashing public education became political sport. Union teachers who can sincerely applaud their district reassure top prospects.
"Teachers may not have gone into teaching to get rich," said Lyons. "But one of the things that seems to have been missing for a number of years is the respect that used to go with the title of teacher."
The labor-management collaboration has helped Hillsborough schools recruit and retain committed teachers, in spite of legislative interference and grandstanding.
Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature now require school boards to start experienced teachers at pay levels that recognize all of their years of service elsewhere. Many districts cannot afford that luxury. Veteran teachers lured to Hillsborough have been credited with no more than seven years of service in their new pay grade.
Munificent as the legislative mandate may appear, no extra state funding came with it.
So, in a contract proposal set for ratification this month, the Hillsborough teachers union agreed to delay full service-credit pay. In exchange, all recently transplanted teachers will be upgraded by March, not just those who came aboard this month. The compromise saves the district $2-million this year, according to Lyons.
"We want to reward the ones who've been on the frontlines for some time," she said. "Why should it be that just the new people benefit?" Expensive legislative mandates pose a special challenge in Hillsborough, where residents historically fund a smaller share of the county school budget than local taxpayers in other Florida districts. Voters rejected a 1995 school tax, only to pass a similar referendum a year later when a new football stadium was thrown in.
At least GOP legislative leaders have their priorities straight. They seem to feel that public education is too important to be left to professional educators, especially ones whose labor unions tend to back Democrats.
"The Legislature is into this real micromanagement mode," said Lyons. "There are some excellent local delegation members who have just fought this tooth and nail." Democratic Reps. Sara Romeo and Bob Henriquez and Sen. Les Miller came to her mind. "But there aren't enough of them," Lyons said.
Will there be enough teachers to educate the rest of the Baby Boomlet generation?
"It's very discouraging as a teacher to read nonstop on a daily basis what a terrible job the public schools are doing and how there are all of these incompetent people out there," said Lyons. "Teachers probably put in more time on their own than any other employee group."
Driving by schools several weeks before the start of classes this month, Lyons saw parking lots full of teachers' cars. "They're doing it willingly so they will be prepared when those children show up the first day," she said.
Contact Staff Writer Francis X. Gilpin at [email protected], or 813-248-8888, ext. 130