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Bush, Gallagher write teachers to boast of aid
By SHELBY OPPEL and ALICIA CALDWELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2000
TALLAHASSEE -- At a cost to taxpayers of $50,000, Gov. Jeb Bush and Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher have sent a letter to Florida's 140,000 teachers, thanking them and boasting about state spending on public schools.
"Both the governor and I want teachers to know that we appreciate them," Gallagher said.
In the letter, "Tallahassee" is misspelled in the letterhead. It is spelled with one "e" instead of two. Spokeswoman Karen Chandler attributed that to a proofing error by the Department of Education.
It may not be the first time that a Florida governor has sent a public relations volley directly into teachers' homes, but it is nonetheless unusual. And in this case, the education commissioner is running for the U.S. Senate.
Gallagher will face U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum in the Republican primary to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Connie Mack. Gallagher said the mass mailing was not an attempt to burnish his image as a candidate.
"I never even thought of that as a consequence," he said.
Elizabeth Hirst, Bush's spokeswoman, said the letter "was not political at all."
"It's appropriate for the governor, and it's certainly appropriate for the commissioner of education, to be talking to the teachers of our state, and that's what this is all about: communication and trying to improve our education system," Hirst said.
A spokeswoman for McCollum said she didn't suspect an ulterior motive in the mailing.
"I don't think it will have an effect either way," said spokeswoman Shannon Gravitte.
The letter tells teachers that the Legislature approved a 7.8 percent increase in per-pupil spending for the 2000-01 school year. The increase is more than the 4.49 percent boost that Bush recommended this spring, before lawmakers convened to adopt a final budget.
In total, lawmakers approved nearly $1-billion in new aid for public schools this year, with significant amounts earmarked for programs to improve student achievement and for salary incentives to recruit and retain high-quality teachers.
Teachers received the letter, which was mailed last week, at about the same time their unions were negotiating for salary increases with local school boards. The average Florida teacher earned $36,524 during the 1999-2000 school year, according to the Florida Education Association (the state's largest teachers union) and a Senate staff analysis.
In 1998-99, the average Florida teacher earned $35,915, about $4,700 less than the national average that year.
Bush and Republican lawmakers, who hold the majority in the state Legislature, have repeatedly emphasized that the 2000-01 budget includes enough money for "substantial" teacher pay raises. Salary decisions, however, are up to school boards, which often complain that lawmakers fail to set aside enough money to give significant raises and pay for other needs.
In that regard, the letter notes that "myths such as decreasing teachers' pay continue to circulate." It directs teachers to Web sites maintained by the governor's office and the Department of Education for "the most updated and accurate information on education issues in Florida."
Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said he doesn't recall similar letters from former administrations.
"I don't remember any other one feeling the need to go to the public relations department to promote a vision," Moore said. "Usually teachers know who is helping and who is not."
Pat Hartstein, a Seminole City Council member who teaches in a dropout prevention program at PTEC-Clearwater, said she had not received the letter. But she doubted its sincerity.
"They're giving us nice rhetoric, but I still don't think they know what it's all about," Hartstein said. "The people making the rules for us need to sit down with us and come walk the hall."
Chandler, the Department of Education spokeswoman, said Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan sent similar letters to teachers in the form of quarterly newsletters when he held the education commissioner's post from 1994 to 1998.
For Bush, the letter to teachers was the first of its kind, said Hirst, his spokeswoman. But Bush has used other forums to try to connect with teachers, she said.
She mentioned Bush's teleconferences with teachers and his creation of Florida's first teacher-in-residence program. Bush also meets regularly with school district superintendents, including a Monday meeting with Pinellas County school Superintendent Howard Hinesley and Earl Lennard, the Hillsborough school superintendent, among others.
"He is a good listener," Hinesley said of Bush. "We have good dialogue."
-- Times staff writer Wilma Norton contributed to this report.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.