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Teacher sees bully pulpit

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003

In the little spare time she had Thursday, Missy Keller pored over a draft of House Bill 901, nicknamed the "BEST Florida Teaching Act," that was pending in the state Legislature.

The Chocachatti Elementary School kindergarten teacher worried that the details of the 34-page bill might escape the general public and become law before anyone knew what hit them. And many of the provisions, such as allowing noneducators to become school principals, simply made no sense, Keller argued.

"These are the kinds of things I want people to be aware of, because it does affect their children," she said.

As the newly elected president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, Keller has the platform to get the word out. She plans to use it.

"One of the things I would really like to accomplish within the presidency is to get more community awareness of these things that affect the children before they become law, before they become fixed in stone," she said. "I will be politically focused."

School Board member Jim Malcolm expected nothing less of the brash, opinionated educator who has been nominated her school's teacher of the year three times and is certified by the National Board.

"I remember her way back when, years ago, she taught at Deltona Elementary School," Malcolm said. "She was a ball of fire then and she remains one. That woman has more energy than anyone deserves."

Malcolm called Keller a woman on a mission, and praised her political astuteness.

"She has public education at heart," he said. "I think she's going to make a good leader."

Keller, 38, said she hoped her good relationship with board members and top administrators will help bring all sides together for the common good of the students.

"In the spirit of collaboration, I'd like to see the teachers and administrators lobbying together for public education," she said. "We've never done a joint venture. I'd also like to see everything come under one umbrella," including the support personnel union.

Her key concerns at the state level include the growth of education vouchers and the role that high-stakes testing plays in schools. She was quick to point out that the school district's inability to pay teachers what they are worth falls at the feet of state lawmakers, too.

"The School Board only has the money that is handed to them by the Legislature," said Keller, who headed the HCTA impasse committee earlier this school year, when the sides could not agree on contract terms until December. "That is why it's so important that people are aware politically of what is going on."

Although she plans to press the School Board for specific salary commitments into the future, Keller did not foresee protracted battles with the superintendent and board.

"I know just with working with (superintendent Wendy) Tellone, comments and suggestions are always welcome," Keller said. "She's the first superintendent that we've had who has actually said, 'What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What are your suggestions?"'

She cited the outcome of the protracted contract negotiations as a positive example. The teachers did not get everything they wanted financially, she said, but they won unexpected benefits.

"Now we're a part of the process," Keller said, noting Tellone's proposal to involve teachers in the early stages of budget preparations. "That was a huge gain for us."

A native of Long Island, N.Y., Keller got her first teaching job at Spring Hill Elementary School at age 23, fresh out of college. She spent two years there before transferring to Deltona Elementary, where she remained until Chocachatti opened three years ago.

She did not join the union at first, but decided after a few years that it was her obligation to pay membership dues because all teachers benefit from the organization's work at the local, state and national level.

"To me it's a matter of conscience," she said. "As a public school teacher, I don't see how you can NOT belong."

Keller since has served as her school site representative 11 times and, since 1998, she has been elected to the National Education Association representative assembly.

She also is a member of the Hernando County Democratic Executive Committee, and has plans someday to run for political office. Some people might remember her for bringing her daughter, then 16 months, to the picket lines five years ago in protest of the district's low wages.

"She goes with me, she participates, so she develops a sense of civic responsibility," Keller said of daughter Jordan, now 7 years old. "It basically comes down to, if you're not a part of the solution, you're part of the problem. It is very important for me to convey to my child."

An ardent supporter of Bill McBride's failed bid for governor, Keller is not predictable, though. She did not, for instance, back the class size reduction amendment that the state teachers' groups actively pushed, mainly because of the price tag.

She does not see schools as the answer to all society's ailments, but rather as a partner with family and community. Like presidents before her, she wants to spend as much energy on teacher improvement programs as on contract negotiations.

Because more than anything, Keller wants to improve things for teachers so they can best serve their students.

"Change is invigorating when it's done by us, but it's frustrating when it's done to us," she said. "It's better to be positive and proactive. You're going to set a better example, and you're going to get more accomplished."

Keller's term begins in July. It will last for two years.

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. E-mail solochek@sptimes.com .

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