Politics & Government

PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Gov. Charlie Crist cites problems with teacher pay bill

TALLAHASSEE -- In the midst of the most intense lobbying he has faced as governor, Charlie Crist faces a stark choice: Sign a bill opposed by thousands of Florida teachers or veto it and alienate major forces in the business community and the Republican-led Legislature.

``Like no other issue I've seen before,'' Crist said during recent campaign stops.

The governor is doing his best not to tip his hand. But Crist has cited multiple problems with the teacher pay bill that point to a potential veto:

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

``Charlie Crist knows which side his bread is buttered on,'' said Pinellas School Board Chairwoman Janet Clark, a Democrat who opposes the bill. ``If he doesn't veto this, he will have lost teachers, he will have lost a lot of parents.''

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.

``Everybody said `we will fix all of this, we will fix all of this' but I have been up here long enough to know that not everybody fixes everything after it is done,'' said Rep. Peter Nehr, R- Tarpon Springs, who opposed the bill.

Something Crist may also consider: the push back from school districts who fear the teacher pay bill would further erode local control of schools.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has said pay-for-performance provisions would be better negotiated at the local level.

On Tuesday, the Broward School Board and Superintendent Jim Notter said they would send Gov. Charlie Crist a letter urging him to veto the controversial bill.

``If signed into law, this bill would take local control of public schools away from school boards, parents, administrators, and community members,'' a draft of the letter said. ``The cordial and collaborative relationship between district school boards, teachers and administrators will be severely damaged.''

School Board member Maureen Dinnen asked that the letter be hand-delivered to Crist's office in Tallahassee. ``I understand his mailbox is full,'' she quipped at a workshop meeting Tuesday. ``Surprise, surprise.''

Since the issue surfaced, opponents have bombarded the governor's office with more than 38,000 e-mails and phone calls. Another 42,000 e-mails have yet to be read.

United Teachers of Dade President Karen Aronowitz said the legislation strips power from local school districts when it comes to crafting collective bargaining agreements.

Aronowitz also said the law would prohibit local school districts from deciding how to best spend their money. If the bill becomes law, school districts would need to develop end-of-course exams for every subject in every grade -- a costly endeavor.

``Nothing about this allows the district to determine the best use of its own money,'' Aronowitz said. ``In fact, it punishes districts and the taxpayers by taking away their own collected money.''

School districts throughout the state would have to divert 5 percent of their budgets to the state to fund the changes.

A few dozen Miami-Dade teachers planned to charter an overnight bus to Tallahassee on Tuesday. They were hoping to meet with Crist on Wednesday to express their opposition to the legislation.

The union is encouraging all teachers to attend a rally outside of the Miami-Dade School Board Administrative Building at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

On Monday, thousands of Miami-Dade teachers took a day off from work to protest the bill and implore Crist to veto it. He has until midnight Friday to do so.

If he does, several legislators say there won't be time to rewrite the bill and get it passed by the end of the session, which is just over two weeks away.

Notter said it would take a lot of rewriting to ``fix'' the bill at this point.

``It'd be extremely difficult, given the constrained timeline and now all the angst among the people of Florida,'' Notter said Tuesday. ``Factions have been galvanized.

He added: ``I really believe it's beyond tweaking.''

But Crist is also being lobbied heavily by those who want the bill signed into law.

His predecessor, Jeb Bush left him a voicemail message asking him to sign it.

On Tuesday, conservative and business leaders held a news conference at the Capital to send Crist a message: ``We want Gov. Crist to know the business community is standing behind him and we are standing up for this legislation,'' said Jose Gonzales of the Associated Industries of Florida.

Crist also has been accused -- falsely, he says -- of breaking his word to Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the sponsor, that he would sign the bill.

``I've never guaranteed anything,'' Crist said.

Said Thrasher in response Tuesday: ``[Crist] said he loved the bill and he could not wait to get it.''

Still, it likely won't be an easy decision for Crist, who already infuriated Republican lawmakers by vetoing legislation last week that would have resurrected their access to potent partisan fundraising machines known as leadership funds.

Another high-profile veto from Crist could put a number of his session priorities at risk, including the confirmation of the remainder of Crist's appointments and a renewable energy bill.

The first hint that Crist might veto the teacher pay bill came last week, two days before the House approved the legislation. Crist expressed concern about the bill's impact on special needs teachers, saying a friend doubted that his son would be able to show learning gains as prescribed by the bill.

It's a concern shared not only by special education teachers, but by educators in other specialized fields, too, such as those who teach English as a second language. They say so much about a student's success is related towhat a child brings -- or doesn't bring -- to the classroom.

``A teacher can be a bad teacher and the students can do great,'' said Elena San Pedro, a special education major at University of South Florida and mother of an autisticchild. ``Or a teacher canbe a great teacher andthe student can do terribly.''