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A teaching moment

Pinellas County educators recently rejected a state merit pay plan by a huge margin, saying no to millions. Here's what they want state legislators to learn from their vote.

By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published March 20, 2007


Sherry Brock knows exactly what an extra few thousand dollars could buy.

New wall-to-wall carpeting for her living room. A cushy couch and a matching love seat. Hubcaps to replace the ones someone stole from her '92 Caddy.

Yet when the moment came for her to approve a plan that would bring Pinellas County schoolteachers $6.1-million - as much as $3,100 of it for herself - the district's 2007 Outstanding Educator checked the little box that said "No."

Brock, a math and journalism teacher at Dixie Hollins High in St. Petersburg, wanted the hubcaps. She thought she deserved them. But her years in the classroom have taught her that some things are more important than money.

"I have not been able to see how this can be fair," she said of the merit pay plan state legislators dubbed Special Teachers Are Rewarded, or STAR. "I think it's divisive."

First, the politicians spoke.

They pointed out all the reasons why rewarding teachers based on their students' FCAT scores was a good idea.

Then, the superintendent spoke.

He encouraged Pinellas County School Board members to approve the plan so the district wouldn't risk losing millions of state dollars.

Finally, the teachers got their turn.

In a stunning display of chutzpah not seen since the teacher walkout of 1968, Pinellas educators stood together last month, rejecting a legislative mandate they considered demeaning and demoralizing. From one end of the county to the other, their votes reflected years of frustration with the FCAT, years of frustration with politicians.

The final tally: 217 for STAR, 4,517 against.

Districts across the state posted similar results, sending legislators back to come up with a new plan they hope educators will find more palatable.

In Pinellas County, the teachers are still angry.

 

VERONICA FOLEY, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg.

YEARS TEACHING: 17

WHY SHE VOTED NO: "There was this bully threat that if it wasn't approved, they were going to impose it on us anyway, and that only 25 percent of the teachers were going to get it. They're saying only 25 percent of us are good enough. That's insulting. It's like telling a dentist, 'We're going to penalize you for every patient you have who comes in with a cavity.' What's he going to do, follow people around and say, 'Don't eat that sugar'? It's ridiculous.

"Do I know that I would qualify? Probably. Would I want my next-door neighbor not to qualify because she teaches social studies instead of reading? No way.

"It's just nasty. It's nasty what they're trying to do to us."

 

BILL VOGT, right, a second-grade teacher at Anona Elementary in Largo.

YEARS TEACHING: 34

WHY HE THINKS STAR ISN'T FAIR: "They were going to rank-order all the teachers. I might be the best teacher in second grade. But if we're being rewarded based on FCAT, I'd be left out in the cold.

"It seems kind of stupid for us to say we don't want the money. I think doctors would want to take the money. I think this is kind of unique to teachers. But it's camaraderie. We don't want to have infighting that would hurt the school, that would hurt the profession.

"We are an A school. We get the bonus money they give out now. It's hard for me to take the money because I feel so sorry for the D schools. They have the hardest kids to teach."

 

GENIE PELLETIER, a media specialist at Belleair Elementary in Clearwater. She works with a lot of kids whose first language is not English.

YEARS TEACHING: 31

WHAT SHE THINKS IS MISSING IN THE PLAN: "They haven't explained how it will work with children who are mentally disabled or with children whose parents work and aren't around to help them. There are so many factors that haven't been considered at all.

"Those kids are making leaps and bounds, but they're not achieving at the level they're supposed to, because they're still learning English. We're used to having things handed down to us. But this compromises our ability to work with children.

"I'm not turning out so many widgets per hour. I wouldn't even apply for this, because I think it's wrong."

 

LINDA GILDEMEISTER, a teacher of gifted students at Cypress Woods Elementary in Palm Harbor.

YEARS TEACHING: 22

WHAT SHE THINKS NEEDS TO HAPPEN: "The state wants to quantify this job. They want to say, 'This is what an outstanding teacher does.' But if you went around to schools, every principal would guide you to someone who is outstanding who would never qualify for STAR.

"I think what they need to do is get away from the bonuses and try to raise everybody's salaries. If you can go to Georgia and automatically get $5,000 a year more, that's not a good thing. The interns all know that. They know they can go to a state that pays more."

 

ALAN KAY, a history teacher at East Lake High in Tarpon Springs and Pinellas County's Outstanding Educator in 2004.

YEARS TEACHING: 18

WHY HE THINKS LEGISLATORS UNDERESTIMATED TEACHERS: "I've talked to a lot of teachers about this. We have no problem with some version of merit pay. But there are so many holes in this plan it's like a colander.

"They're asking us to do what they tell us never to do: Make an evaluation using only one thing.

"Here's the thing that a lot of people, especially the people in Tallahassee, don't get. If we were in it for the money, we wouldn't be doing this. For us, it's a matter of principle."

Donna Winchester can be reached at 727 893-8413 or winchester@sptimes.com.