Rowlett teacher looks for ways to unite district administrators, teachers

Drama teacher looks to bridge communication gap

kbergen@bradenton.comNovember 27, 2012 

MANATEE -- Parents held up little bidding cards for the teacher standing on the dance floor. The asking price climbed, and Starloe Galletta's birthday party went for $350.

The Rowlett Elementary School drama teacher participates every year in the live auction at the Rowlett Family Association Gala, a night of dinner and dancing that is one of the magnet school's biggest fundraisers.

Many teachers at Rowlett, including Galletta, have offered their time and skills -- like music or art lessons -- to be bid on at the gala each year.

"Everybody is involved, but I believe I'm the only teacher that is a live auction item," says a chuckling Galletta.

Soon, Galletta will host a birthday party for the child of the highest-bidding parent -- the student picks the theme and Galletta helps party-goers plan and perform a mini-show before the cake is cut.

It's fun for Galletta, 35, but it is also a way for her to be proactive in helping her school.

As the district slowly tries to fix and identify its own financial and organizational problems, Manatee County schools such as Rowlett aren't waiting around for them to figure it out.

"Our theme last year was 'Make it happen' -- regardless of what's going on in the district," Galletta said. "We know it's going to be hard. We know we are going to get money cut. We know there are things that are going to be missing and people that are going to be missing. Just make it happen."

An Anna Maria Island native, Galletta has long been an activist for education in this community. She has driven to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina on her own dime and brought carloads of supplies for devastated school districts. She once spent a month visiting school districts across the country by train to see how they operated.

The salary cuts haven't changed her focus, but instead made activism less about grand gestures and more about finding other ways to play her part.

"I don't think it changes anyone's enthusiasm," Galletta says. "It just changes what we can offer to the students and the community."

So Galletta keeps participating in the gala -- the fundraising efforts of the Rowlett Family Association help pay for three to four teaching positions at Rowlett. Last year, the association raised more than $170,000.

Once in a while she doesn't fill her inhaler prescriptions because she feels guilty about contributing to the health insurance fund, which the district has struggled to maintain.

And she thinks it's more important than ever for teachers to share their ideas on how the district can move forward from recent struggles and improve teaching in the classroom.

That doesn't mean pointing fingers, she says. District officials may have forgotten to account for $11.3 million of expenses last year. But the school board passed that budget, and others didn't recognize the problem.

Former superintendent Tim McGonegal, the man who publicly took the fall for financial mistakes that some call gross negligence, is the same man who would have come to your classroom that afternoon if you called him, Galletta says.

So she won't focus on that. You have a problem, you come with solutions.

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In the early 1990s, Galletta was a student at King Middle School. She still hasn't forgotten when her teachers canceled an after-school activity so they could protest pay cuts outside the school board building. They could not strike in this right-to-work state of Florida, but they could speak.

She also remembers the first time she expressed her opinion about a school choice issue at a board meeting before she was employed as a drama teacher at Rowlett in 2004.

"I realized I had the power to speak," Galletta said. "And I wanted to be heard."

Since then, Galletta has been an outspoken advocate for education in this county, a voice for some teachers who have been afraid to speak out against district decisions.

"Teachers are scared for their jobs. They are scared to speak," Galletta said. "We have to get past that mentality or we will never change what's affecting us."

The truth is, Galletta says, teachers haven't always felt heard in this district. Like when teachers turned out by the hundreds last February to protest a 1.75 percent retroactive pay cut that the board passed 3 to 2.

"There was a perception that they were being closed out," Galletta said.

But in the end, she says, teachers had a small triumph. The board later voted to not make paycuts retroactive.

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Assistant Superintendent Scott Martin visits Galletta's classroom in early November. Galletta has an open-door policy -- she invites parents and administrators to swing by any time.

Today, her third-graders are finishing a unit on pantomime, so Martin plops himself on the ground next to a floor table and sits cross-legged in his slacks and tie.

Third-graders don't seem too concerned about budget issues or forensic audits here. Today, they are still learning that the "theater word" for "practice" is "rehearse." Today, they are starting to understand how to make their body language purposeful when they act in front of the class.

And today, they think Martin is really, really funny.

Martin is tasked with portraying a who, a where and a what, without speaking words. He stands in front of the class and draws a smile in front of his lips, squeezes his nose and mimics juggling. The class giggles a little bit. Next, he spins around the room, humming a carnival tune. Finally, he crouches down to the floor and waddles forward, his hand on imaginary handlebars. Suddenly, he's flat on his back on the floor.

Eventually the class understands. A clown at the circus fell off his tricycle.

Martin takes a bow. He looks like he's enjoying himself.

Later, he'll talk about how encouraging he found the creativity in the classroom, and how important he felt it was to be there.

"I'm just trying to bridge a gap," said Martin, who acknowledges that some people have an "us and them" mentality about the relationship between district administrators and teachers. "The sole reason of why we exist is to support our schools -- we need to listen and actively participate."

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Galletta has an idea about how to make that happen:

"Talking to Teachers" -- a TV and Internet broadcast where teachers and administrators share their ideas for the classroom and sound off on topics of interest in an open forum. Galletta envisions herself in a moderator role.

Teachers and administrators can always learn from each other, Galletta says, and she wants to continue to generate conversation in a district where poor communication and public mistrust have become an issue.

Teachers have a lot to express, Galleta says. They almost wholeheartedly support the ongoing independent forensic investigation into the district's budget crisis. They have ideas about where the district can cut spending. But they need a forum to express themselves without repercussions.

The show also could be a place where teachers could share their teaching practices, a required standard in the evaluation system.

"I want it to be an open exchange. I want them (teachers) to feel trust," Galletta said. "But I don't want it to be a place where people are pointing fingers. Or creating blame."

McGonegal had already been excited about helping Galletta make the show happen before his sudden resignation, Galletta said. She met with interim superintendent David Gayler in early November to help the idea get off the ground again.

She called The Herald excitedly last week.

"He said 'two thumbs up,'" she says breathlessly.

Gayler says he is eager to see it get started, and would be happy to make an appearance in one of the first episodes.

"Let's tell our stories. Let's tell people about the good things going on in Manatee County," Gayler said. "Let's make this a forum that anyone can flip on the television and watch."

Galletta will meet with EDV-TV instructional TV officials next to talk filming. She hopes to get something started by January, possibly December. This week she surveyed Manatee County teachers' groups to see who would be interested in participating or had ideas for topics.

More than 60 responded.

"All we want is to move forward," Galletta said. "No matter what it is, we have to move forward."

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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