Angry teachers confront board

The superintendent's plan to give high school instructors more work brings out a crowd.

Published April 11, 2007

TAMPA - A packed boardroom of irate high school teachers showed the Hillsborough School Board on Tuesday night the level of festering discontent over a move to increase their teaching loads next year.

The rowdy crowd - to some School Board members, downright disrespectful - dominated the meeting. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia acknowledged to teachers that she wished the reasons for her decision had been better communicated.

Still, the mood in the room remained angry. Teachers were the majority of more than 100 community members at the board meeting, which rarely attract such large crowds.

The Hillsborough County Farm Bureau even sent a representative to protest the reassignment of agricultural teachers to other fields, one of the many rumored changes that stirred up the crowd.

The dozen teachers who signed up to speak outlined their problems with the decision to force all high school teachers to spend 300 minutes in front of classes every day - 30 to 50 minutes more than today's schedules. For many, this means picking up a sixth class period at the expense of planning time.

Teachers warned that they would be forced to dumb down lessons and assign busywork to free up time for required paperwork. They predicted a drop in club sponsorship. As morale plunges, they expect teacher burnout to rise.

The prospect brought Sarah Robinson to her first board meeting in 18 years as a teacher in Hillsborough schools. She told board members that she's thinking about leaving.

"I don't know how I can work harder," she said, handing over a petition in protest signed by other teachers at Leto High. "I'm rather insulted that I'm being asked to."

Other teachers worried about rumors that an unusually high number of high school teachers could be affected by cuts to some teaching positions. Any displaced teacher would have the opportunity to transfer to another job or Hillsborough school.

School district officials do not yet know precisely how many teachers will be affected at the middle and high schools. It would be no more than 5 percent of the 15,000 teachers in all of Hillsborough's schools, said Janice Velez, general manager of personnel in the human resources division.

Administrators say many factors - from state class size limits to the extra class time teachers are being forced to pick up - are complicating the annual assignment of teaching positions.

Displaced teachers can look for jobs in their areas of speciality at other high schools before entering the teacher pool, which allows instructors to pick from available positions based on seniority.

Steve Kemp, a Sickles High teacher of students with disabilities, is among those affected. When his department lost a teaching position, he was offered a chance to teach in an area that didn't interest him.

He said he wasn't told about the pool immediately. While that alternative provides some comfort, he remains upset about how the situation was handled.

"There's just a lot of frustration and tension," said Kemp, in his fourth year teaching as a second career.

School officials echoed frustration. For several months, the superintendent's staff has tried to explain the need for the change.

By having high school instructors teach 300 minutes - the same as elementary teachers - the district anticipates saving $28-million in new teacher salaries and benefits. Even if they could afford new teachers, officials said they could not find enough qualified teachers to meet the demands of the state's class size amendment.

"I wish that this had been communicated in a way that got the word out and the understanding to all the people involved in this," Elia said, pointing out that meetings were held around the county. "It still wasn't enough."

The superintendent's remarks did little to ease the tension among teachers at the back of the room. Many burst out laughing at Elia's observation that "this is a benefit to our students."

The crowd cheered when a few speakers made critical remarks about the superintendent's salary package. Another applause line: proposals for administration to feel some of the pain of the budgetary belt tightening.

The rowdiness rubbed board member Doretha Edgecomb the wrong way. A former school principal, she noted her pride that Hillsborough teachers had come forward to share their concerns.

But not the manner in which they came.

"As a 43-year veteran educator, I know that none of you would have accepted some of the behavior from your students that you hurled at us," she said. "You have a right to disagree, but there's something called mutual respect."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400.

Principals on the move

Clair Mel Elementary: Shelly Hermann named principal. She is assistant principal at Bing Elementary.

Giunta Middle: Arlene Castelli named principal, rising from assistant principal at the school.

Liberty Middle: James Ammirati named principal. He is assistant principal at Stewart Middle.

Van Buren Middle: Joann Redden is the new principal. She leaves the same position at Oak Grove Elementary.