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Manatee protesters seeing red over teacher tenure bill

BRADENTON — A sea of scarlet blanketed downtown Bradenton streets Wednesday afternoon as hundreds of protesters rallied against the controversial Senate Bill 6 — better known as the “teacher tenure” bill.

About 400 parents, students, teachers and other community members wore red T-shirts and hats as they stood along Manatee Avenue sidewalks from Ninth to 15th streets west. Some even sported red umbrellas and scarves to symbolize their frustration about the bill that would dramatically change the way teachers are evaluated and paid. Gov. Charlie Crist has until Friday to sign or veto it.

“We’re angry,” said Pat Barber, president of the Manatee County Education Association, the local teachers union who sponsored the rally. “It’s time for the politicians in Tallahassee to listen to the professionals that work in the classroom.”

The protest began at around 4:30 p.m. At about 6 p.m., the numbers began to dissipate.

“Crist Nix 6”, “Tyranny from Tallahassee”, “Honk for Teachers” —

They were just a few signs protestors held as passing motorists whizzed by. Some honked as ralliers waved, then hooted and hollered in response.

At one point, a school bus drove by and students inside banged on the windows in support. Again, the ralliers cheered.

“This is legislative lunacy,” said David Barcena, a teacher for 21 years currently at Braden River Middle, who stood on the corner of Manatee Avenue and 12th Street West.

Nearby stood Ed Patten, a retired school counselor from New York state.

Patten, who now lives in Manatee, said he came to support the teachers in the county.

“It’s a lose-lose for the teachers and the district,” he said. “Clearly a step backward in education.”

Also in attendance were Manatee County schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal and several school board members, including board chairwoman Jane Pfeilsticker and Walter Miller.

“I’m attending in support of our teachers,” Pfeilsticker said. “I think Senate Bill 6 is the wrong way to go about this.”

Representatives from Fund Education Now, an Orlando-based advocacy group concerned about cuts in education funding, were also on hand to rally.

“It’s not good for our public schools or for our children, and it’s a slap in the face for our teachers,” said Williams Elementary teacher Pat McKenley, who held a homemade sign that read “Veto SB 6”

Although street sidewalks were swamped with protesters, others, like Phil Davis, say they are in favor of the bill.

“This bill is good for the students, teachers, parents and the schools,” Davis said. “The people that are protesting the bill — teachers, students and parents, especially the students — have not read the bill. They have been brainwashed by the union thugs to protest any type of merit pay. The teachers’ unions have never backed any form of merit pay. They do not want any accountability in student achievement linked to their pay or pensions.”

Instead, he said, the bill will raise salaries for teachers in high-poverty schools, teachers of subjects that are in high demand and teachers whose students are making progress, and that it ties renewal to effective performance and requires that the students are actually learning. He also said the bill does not punish teachers whose students are below grade level, it simply measures how much a child is progressing from one year to the next.

McGonegal this week sent a letter to the governor asking him to veto the bill.

“Please do not place more of a burden on the backs of our teachers during these difficult days when they are constantly being asked to accomplish more with less,” McGonegal wrote.

The legislation proposes the most dramatic overhaul of Florida public schools in years, linking teacher pay to student performance — not on years of experience or education level.

But the bill would give vast oversight authority to the Department of Education to create the rules that will make it all a reality, some say, raising too many questions on how the state will account for personal issues such as family life, income, language skills and other factors that shape student performance.

The bill would also require school districts to divert 5 percent of their budget into a performance fund maintained by the Florida Department of Education.

Manatee County school administrators would be required to set aside $14 million in the budget, a move that some fear would mean cuts in areas like music and art classes.

District officials already are expecting to slash the upcoming school year’s budget by $15 million.

Crist has cited multiple problems with the teacher pay bill that point to a potential veto: It takes too much power away from local educators, it offers vague guidance on how teachers will be evaluated and it was pushed through the House and Senate with little input from the public.

His decision could have sweeping ramifications not only on state politics, but also his career. Crist, running for U.S. Senate, is trailing in the polls behind former House Speaker and conservative Marco Rubio, who supports the measure.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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