Seminole UniServ, an umbrella organization that represents four local associations and 7,000 employees in the Seminole County Public Schools system, issued advance notice of the rally that read like a funeral announcement:
“‘In Loving Memory,’ Florida’s Great Public Schools (Born 1882, Doomed to Die 2011). Florida public education will surely succumb to budget cuts and brutal legislative attacks.”
The “memorial service” was held on West 1st Street in Sanford in front of the office of Rep. Jason Brodeur, one of three Seminole County Republican legislators identified as staunch proponents of education reforms opposed by the unions.
On Thursday, mourners dressed in black and carried R.I.P. signs, tombstones and banners, decrying proposed cuts in the education budget and collective-bargaining rights, along with a merit-pay system that would develop teacher-performance evaluations that are at least 50 percent based on student-learning growth. Other protesters held rallies in Heathrow and Longwood.
“There are a lot of things coming that will crush public education,” said Tony Gentile, executive director of Seminole UniServ.
Three current bills proposed by local legislators are targeting teachers’ collective bargaining powers, with police and firefighters excluded. State Rep. Chris Dorworth is sponsoring a bill that would eliminate union-dues deductions, while Representatives Scott Plakin and Brodeur want to make it easier for any union to decertify.
“They’re basically anti-union bills seeking to squelch the collective voice of educators in Florida,” Gentile said.
He explained that teacher compensation is not out of line. The average teacher salary in Florida is $42,000, with an average take-home retirement benefit of $395 every two weeks.
“It’s not a gravy train, but it’s a stable program,” Gentile said.
Katie Murphy is a special-education teacher at Wicklow Elementary School in Sanford, with 30 years experience in SCPS classrooms. She is also secretary of the Seminole Education Association, representing 3,000 local teachers, and vice chair of Seminole UniServ.
Murphy was one of the leaders of this week’s picketing, saying its purpose was to defend the public-education system.
“We want to make sure the teacher’s voice is heard. Strong schools must have strong teachers, and we need to have a strong voice,” she said.
She said Gov. Rick Scott’s budget plan to reduce public-education spending by $3.3 billion, or 10 percent, in an effort to offset a projected $3.8 billion shortfall, would set back recent advances in school achievement. Seminole County alone would lose an estimated $40 million.
“If that’s where he wants to lead us, that’s not where I want to go,” she said.
Citing the recent No. 5 ranking of Florida schools by “Education Week” in its annual “Quality Counts” report, Murphy said the state, and Seminole County in particular, has made significant strides in education.
Prior to the demonstration, Murphy had asked for a meeting with Brodeur on Thursday, but he was out of town. The door to the Dist. 33 office was locked during the protest, which took place from 4-5 p.m.
In his written response to Murphy’s request, the son of a Seminole County elementary school teacher and SCPS alumni defended the merit-pay proposal, stating his top priority was to provide high-quality education.
“Current educator pay schedules are based on seniority and additional degrees, not on classroom performance and student growth. Under the current system, there is insufficient recognition for teachers who excel within their chosen profession,” Brodeur said.
“By financially rewarding educators for their expertise and excellence, we will be better positioned to attract and retain the best and brightest to the teaching profession here in Florida.”
The Senate bill calling for substantial changes in the way Florida teachers would be paid is expected to be voted on next week when the next legislative session reconvenes. But educators wonder, in the face of planned budget cuts, where will the money come from to pay for increased standardized testing and teacher incentives?
Already, Seminole County has lost $91 million in state funding during the past two years, with education-spending levels reduced to those of five years ago.
“It’s already down to the bone. If you cut any more, it will cut into the marrow,” said SEA board member Chris Spiliotis. “All this is being determined by people who have never stepped into a classroom.”
Spiliotis is a physical-education teacher at Rosenwald School for severely emotionally/behaviorally-disabled students in Altamonte Springs, and previously taught 18 years at Seminole High School and four years at Crooms Academy.
This year he has $80 in his budget. It’s the same $80 he had last year.
In a scenario that is being played out in Florida and across the Midwest, lawmakers are demanding public employees to sacrifice, whether it’s their benefits, working conditions or collective-bargaining rights. To Spiliotis, it’s all one fight.
In 1985 the Florida Legislature mandated that employers contribute to the health care and pensions of public employees as a form of deferred compensation. Spiliotis said this was intended to attract and retain professionals who would otherwise go into the private sector.
In Seminole County, three of every four teachers have voluntarily chosen to join an association for collective bargaining, which is the second highest percentage among school districts in the state. This demonstrates solidarity in the need for worker protections, he said.
“I don’t see the proposed changes as necessary,” he said. “It’s an abrogation of local control.”
“We have three representatives who have filed bills that we believe are anti-teacher, anti-union bills. They are a threat to our membership.”
In a counter-demonstration to the teachers’ rally in Sanford, a handful of Tea Party advocates used the opportunity to express the opposing view.
“We’re here to support the Rep. Brodeur in the face of vocal opposition,” Linda Trocine said.
Speaking out as an individual and an engineer and statistician, Trocine said she is in favor of merit pay for teachers, citing a Florida House staff analysis that found classroom teachers received a 99.97 percent satisfactory performance evaluation in 2008-2009, while less than 70 percent of reading and mathematics teachers had 50 percent of their students make learning gains on statewide assessments.
“The probability of 99.97 percent of teachers performing satisfactorily is remote,” she said.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce also waded into the opinion pool on Thursday’s demonstrations against the three local legislators. A press release stated that the protesters, “grappling for power and money,” exemplified “Wisconsin-style bully tactics.”
“Despite strong education gains that have propelled Florida’s schools from 31st to 5th in the nation, government union members are intent on shifting away from progress, accountability and sustainability in favor of status quo and not sharing in the sacrifice,” the chamber said.