State Politics

Fla. lawmakers challenge teacher tenure

The teacher tenure debate is echoing in the legislative halls of Tallahassee with a bill that could have sweeping impact on job security for teachers in Florida.

Part of a national movement backed by President Barack Obama, the proposed legislation seeks to set limits on tenure for teachers. Although still being discussed in the House, it has stalled in the Senate and is expected to be revisited in 2010.

Under the proposed legislation, teachers hired after July 2009 would have to be employed five years before gaining tenured status instead of the current three. Once tenured, teachers would have to have their tenure renewed every five years.

Under Florida law, tenured teachers can’t be dismissed without cause. They have the support of unions that represent them in legal battles, and the process to fire a tenured teacher can be long and drawn out.

Compared to other education bills filed in Tallahassee this year — amidst intense budgetary discussions — Florida’s proposed “Quality Teachers For All Students Act” gained a lot of momentum. But it is not likely to pass the Senate Education Appropriations Committee.

“We have turned that bill into a summer study program. That means the staff will study that issue for the summer,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota. “It’s better that way. I think if you’re going to make radical changes to employment issues, those changes need to be made on facts. We have very experienced people at the (Department of Education), we have them studying the issue. They will report back to us next year and we’ll decide what changes we want to make.”

The movement to dismantle tenure is making headlines around the country. In his stimulus package, Obama included $200 million in funding for performance-pay programs. State lawmakers across the nation, including those in Florida, are fighting to get legislation that would pay teachers based on their performance or weaken tenure for teachers, or both.

Manatee County educators have mixed views about the tenure debate. They have reservations about the legislation and its potential for more bureaucracy.

Manatee schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal said he thinks the current system works well but acknowledges it can take time to fire a teacher if they aren’t meeting expectations.

“It can take up to two and a half to three years; it is time consuming,” he said.

The termination process

In Manatee County, teachers can be considered for termination if they are found to violate laws, policies or the code of ethics or if they continually flunk performance evaluations.

In three years, the district’s Office of Professional Standards investigator looked into 435 cases involving allegations of misconduct or unethical behavior. The figure includes all employees, from teachers to janitors. Of that number, 103 employees resigned, 26 were fired, and 142 faced disciplinary actions. The remaining 164 cases involved unfounded allegations and pending cases.

In many reported cases of policy or ethics violations, investigations often take months to conclude, said Debbie Horne, the district’s investigator. During the investigation, employees are usually placed on paid leave.

If an allegation is founded, the superintendent has to decide what to recommend to the board as a disciplinary action. The employee is notified of the decision and can resign, retire or legally challenge the action. Employees also can seek the union’s legal help.

One or more hearings are held, and it would be at least three months before a case is heard, Horne said. If the employee is terminated after this process, he or she can still appeal the case to the Second District Court of Appeals.

Pathaline Daniels, a former special education teacher, had her tenure stripped away and was suspended for 10 days by the school board last year. In 2007, Daniels wrote letters to several people accusing several coworkers of misconduct, but declined to be interviewed by district investigators without her attorney when they attempted to look into the allegations. Her refusal was cause for disciplinary action.

In 2008, she took a year of unpaid medical leave while district investigators launched a second investigation into allegations she made false charges in the first case. She was fired and took both cases to an appellate court where a judge upheld the board’s decision. The last one ended in January.

In the case of a struggling teacher, the process can be equally drawn out.

Legally, a teacher has to be notified before he or she is placed on a 90-day probation.

“Before that occurs, principals must confer with the legal department to draft their expectations and deficiencies,” said John Bowen, school board attorney.

The principal must monitor and work closely with the teacher on improving the latter’s performance. It’s a process that could take up to two and a half to three years depending on the teacher’s progress.

The teacher may make great strides and be taken off probation, but the teacher might be placed on it again six months later if their performance slides, Bowen said.

If the teacher fails to improve, the superintendent then decides whether to fire the teacher. The teacher can then choose to either resign or request an administrative hearing.

“We don’t make judgment calls, that is what the process is for,” said Art Fazio, Manatee Education Association’s business agent.

Student achievement an issue

The provisions of the Quality Teachers bill may make it easier for school district administrators to fire teachers without cause at the end of their annual or five-year tenure contract. Teachers could also be fired any time if their students underachieve.

Proponents of the bill, particularly the public policy foundation created by former Gov. Jeb Bush, say it’s about time the matter of teacher tenure is tackled.

“One year of ineffective teaching can have a lasting impact on student’s ability to learn,” said Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future. “We can’t afford to wait.”

Opponents, wary of the political influences behind the bill, say it seeks to fix something that is not broken.

“I’m not exactly sure what this works to solve,” said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association. “This bill would give administrators the opportunity to fire first and ask questions later.”

Bob Gosling and Bob Fletcher, two Manatee High teachers who are nearing the end of their careers, said they understand the intent behind the bill. In their three decades of teaching, they have worked with ineffective teachers.

But principals should bear the responsibility of that.

“We’ve had people who should have been removed, but administrators dropped the ball and they are still teaching,” said Fletcher. “The ball is in the administration’s court to deal with teachers who are not performing. But it’s a lot of work for them, and there are painful things to do.”

Rowlett Elementary Principal Brian Flynn said it benefits the teaching profession to help teachers, especially those new to the job.

The country faces a high teacher turnover and a problem retaining them: one in three new teachers leaves the profession within five years, according to a non-profit research group called the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

“People who go into education have a real interest and want to help children,” Flynn said. “We want to make sure we do anything we can as administrators to make them successful and keep them in the field much longer.”

— Herald Staff Writer Sara Kennedy contributed to this report.