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Teachers in Hillsborough decide that for a week they will ‘work the contract’

By Marlene Sokol
A standing-room-only crowd at Thursday's meeting of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association voted to "work the contract" for a week to protest treatment from the school district. [Photo courtesy of Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association]

TAMPA — Teachers in Hillsborough County will "work the contract" for a week after Thanksgiving to illustrate their dissatisfaction with treatment from the school district.

That means no late meetings or phone calls with parents and no grading papers at home.

"It’s to make a point that this is what things would be like if teachers really did that all the time," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

Union members voted unanimously to take this action at a meeting Thursday evening that drew 300 teachers, an unusually high number, Baxter-Jenkins said.

"It was a historic vote," she said. "It is rare that we vote unanimously on anything."

Teachers, parents and now students have been up in arms since Oct. 23, when the district told the union it would not give its members a year’s advancement for pay purposes.

For roughly a third of the district’s 14,000 teachers, that means foregoing a scheduled $4,000 raise. Under a pay plan enacted in 2013, salaries remain the same for three years, then increase in the fourth if the teacher earns at least a satisfactory rating every year.

The district says with money tight, it can no longer afford to honor these raises. In a written statement issued earlier this month, the district made the point that it has been raising employee pay for the last four years, that the teachers are the second-highest paid in the Tampa Bay area, and that money is needed for other uses, such as building maintenance.

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said she could not say anything more on Friday, as the two sides are still in contract negotiations.

The union considers the raises an obligation that could be met with better budgeting and money management. And, teachers point out, the district has relaxed its adherence to state class size limits in recent years, which makes their job harder.

Baxter-Jenkins acknowledged that for some teachers, it will be difficult to leave their work behind at dismissal time, which is why "work the contract" moves are exceedingly rare.

"This is not the first time it’s been talked about," she said. "But it’s hugely difficult because, let’s face it: We run schools on the notion that tons of what happens is basically done out of the goodness of their hearts."

Baxter-Jenkins said the union has not declared an impasse, meaning it is open to negotiations.

In the meantime, she predicts hundreds will attend Tuesday’s School Board meeting, the last one before Thanksgiving.

Among other things, the meeting agenda includes the approval of four new charter schools that would serve 4,400 students at build-out. While other school boards in the state have pushed back against independently run charters, Hillsborough’s board members rarely vote against the school applications.

Nor has Hillsborough joined in a lawsuit against this year’s sweeping state law that encourages and funds more charters.

"I understand the law on charters," Baxter-Jenkins said. "But we elect School Board members to be the people who will stand up for public school students. You can’t say ‘we’re losing money’ and then roll out the red carpet for people to take the money away."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol