PASCO’S ANNUAL CONTRACT FIASCO

A MYOPICALLY DAFT POLICY

Surprise: Browning & Company and USEP are once again at a standoff. Annual Contract renewal policy and its ramifications for teachers who suddenly find themselves unemployed are the items at issue.

Back in 2011, the unrelentingly antagonistic Florida Legislature passed a crucial component of its far-right quest to corporatize public education in the state: the codified erasure of teacher tenure in public school systems. Since then, all new teachers receive annual contracts. Many good teachers are finding out just how precarious and stressful employment on an annual contract basis can be.

There are, in fact, innumerable issues associated with the legislature’s elimination of teachers’ job security. They are all woven together into the perfect fabric designed to suffocate the teaching profession and eradicate true public education. Teachers’ unions have no choice but to fight back. If they don’t fight now, they are finished.

A MODEST PROPOSAL

The United School Employees of Pasco (USEP) is proposing contract language that guarantees teachers who receive effective or better evaluations a job for the following school year. It’s a great idea, as it’s only fair that teachers be able to feel a measure of moderately long-term employment security going from one year to another throughout the course of their careers. There is nothing unreasonable about the proposal. It is not arrogant or presumptuous. It recognizes the complex realities of the issue and addresses them. Of course, Bubba ain’t havin’ none of that.  He has a whole different concept of where and how teachers fall into the public education scheme.

THE BUBBA DOCTRINE

Kurt Browning has never been, is not, and will never be, an educator. By his own account, he is a manager “of people;” an administrator.  He honed his particular approach to leadership over 26 years as Pasco county’s supervisor of elections and another five years as Florida Secretary of State.  He became, by function of those offices, rather predisposed to a certain desire for impunity with respect to power over his employees. In neither of those offices did he lead an organization with such a substantial cadre of professionals, of which most possess an intellect at least equal to his own.

The position of superintendent of Pasco county’s public schools is certainly very different from the job of supervisor of elections or even a state level cabinet job. Browning has failed to acknowledge many key differences. Recently reinstalled, unopposed, as Pasco superintendent, he has most assuredly swollen with hubris and pretension. While his first four years were largely unremarkable, his present course in relation to his teachers indicates that he may well become the unwitting architect of the district’s unravelling. His dogged adherence to a dogma of relentless pressure on his employees promises to yield negative results eventually.

Browning fancies himself a capable, fair leader.  However, he fervently aspires to unrestricted authority within his organization. He craves absolute prerogative. He gets visibly angry when he doesn’t get what he wants. He’s not the type of guy who welcomes cooperation with anyone. He only cooperates when he has no choice otherwise. Since the first day of his first term, Browning has eschewed any constructive relationship with USEP, and has steadily pressed for more power to arbitrarily direct policy. He has reduced the role of rank and file teachers in policymaking to a token presence that is utilized much like any other tool. His opposition to language in the master contract guaranteeing effective teachers jobs for another year is illustrative of his general philosophy of leadership; one wherein he has all the cards.

THE MICKEY MOUSE METHOD

According to Solochek, “Kurt Browning said the list of nonreappointed (sic) teachers might have been longer, had the district office not insisted that principals have more than a single complaint about a teacher.” How generous. He went on to say that “it made sense to make it tougher for (non-reappointed teachers) to get another post within the district.” Bubba pointedly asks us, “Why would I want that teacher being hired at another school in the Pasco district?” He then declares,  “If a principal wants to hire a non-reappointed teacher, at a minimum they have to call the principal at the school the teacher came from and have a discussion.” I guess that’s fair enough. It’s reasonable to expect a principal to make a call about any employment candidate.

But of course, this wouldn’t be the Pasco Fiasco without a generous portion of micromanagement. According to Solochek, “If the principal still wants to move forward, the area superintendent and deputy superintendent must review and approve the request.“ Before going further, it’s entirely proper to ask why an area superintendent and the deputy superintendent would even be directly involved in such a decision. I can’t help but get stuck on those words: “If the principal still wants to move forward…” It sounds a whole lot like the principal is discouraged from the outset from hiring a non-reappointed teacher. Let’s not forget that we’re talking about teachers who received an effective rating on their most recent evaluation.  It is abundantly clear that Bubba has thrown all his blithering might behind obstructing non-renewed teachers’ efforts to find new positions.

We now have a system in place that extols the utility of a new teacher evaluation system but ignores the results and terminates effective teachers anyway. At the same time, the district orchestrates well-publicized hiring campaigns in an effort to fill vacancies. The present system (if one dare call it that) is pure Mickey Mouse to its core.

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With no written policy set to govern the process by which effective teachers are denied annual contract renewal, the community is  left to rely on a collection of administrators who all harbor the very same inventory of human liabilities the rest of us do. With no established  procedure to follow while attempting to send a teacher packing, administrators are left to conjure their own, often extremely dubious means by which to achieve their desired ends. The result is that teachers are suddenly out of a job, often for no other reason than a personality conflict with their immediate administrator.

What makes Browning’s attitude toward teachers so spitefully abhorrent is that, on top of supporting a system in which effective teachers are denied contract renewal, he essentially creates a blacklist within the district, adding insult to injury by making it ever more difficult for any such teacher to secure another teaching position within the district. His attitude toward Pasco teachers flies in the face of his recruitment efforts. It is all one grand ruse. Browning has become a compliant cog in the gears of the right-wing corporatization juggernaut. He has a long way to go to prove otherwise.

INEXORABLE EVENTUALITIES

Ultimately, the real issue here is how badly the ill-conceived ban on teacher tenure will affect education in Florida. There are, in fact, both immediate and longer term consequences of such a imbecilic, short-sighted policy.

Despite Browning’s wager that the teacher candidate pool is somehow infinite, his current attitude toward Pasco county teachers will eventually result in a dearth of prospective teachers for Pasco’s schools. In addition to being among the lowest paying school districts in the state (and thereby the nation) Pasco also expressly enables principals to terminate effective teachers who “don’t fit,” so long as they “have more than a single complaint about a teacher.”  How Browning and his minions expect to foster a mutually beneficial relationship with the very backbone of their enterprise through policies like that one is beyond a reasonable person’s ability to rationalize.

Browning and his deputy, Ray Gadd, have embarked on more than one well-publicized recruitment initiative since he took office.  I wonder just how they reconcile recruitment and retention policies that contradict each other.

The precarious nature of employment for teachers on annual contract has a marked dampening effect not only on teachers’ academic freedom, but on their political and social freedom as well. Annually contracted teachers are very easily put at the mercy of an administrator who simply doesn’t like them.  The very genesis of teacher tenure is rooted in the need to insulate teachers from the political and bureaucratic gravity associated with the public sector. Removing it, particularly during a time of hotly contested education policymaking at both the state and national levels, promises to yield unforeseen repercussions that will only make a lot of the current problems in education worse.

USURPATION OF PARENTS

A reader recently wrote to me asking for advice about opting his kids out of testing while simultaneously avoiding nonrenewal. I was, unfortunately, unable to offer any encouraging words. That teacher, and many more like him, are now directly  diminished in their natural parental role. They are quite coerced to compliance by a system that is fundamentally designed to rob them of any power they might otherwise possess, both as teachers and parents.

When parents are afraid of doing what they judge to be the best thing for their children, because of a fear it will cost them their employment, any policy that puts them in a such a position is, from its root upward, tyrannical by design.

LEGALITIES

Solochek writes, “District officials have said they do not consider the union’s proposal legal under state statute, and suggested that strong teachers should have nothing to worry about.”

First, what “district officials?” Who?

Second, on what basis do they “not consider the union’s proposal legal?” Under what state statute?

The “district officials” who assert that the proposal is illegal “under state statute” should cite the specific statute(s) that would be violated if the proposal were adopted. I am unaware of any statute governing any aspect of teacher evaluations or contracts or any other part of teacher employment that prohibits a district from adopting such a proposal.

If “district officials” want to contend that a policy is against state statute, then they ought to be ready to cite state statute.  Whether or not they “consider” something to be legal or not is irrelevant; what matters is whether something actually is legal or not.

THE END OF LONGEVITY

The end of teacher tenure spells the end of teacher longevity in general. This aspect of the shamefully nocuous purge of the teaching profession is probably one of the key motivations behind the erasure of teacher tenure to begin with.  For generations, tenured teachers and their professional associations were the only force capable of tempering heavy-handed and ill-conceived initiatives concocted by superciliously self-interested administrators, bureaucrats and politicians. Now that protection is gone, and we are at the threshold of a new, tragic chapter in public education; one wherein the greedy forces who see nothing but power and profit stand to dictate the course of the future for millions of people without any credible force to counter their duplicitous connivance.

This is truly very simple arithmetic. The abandonment of the step system some years ago notwithstanding, teachers with more longevity still customarily make more than teachers with less classroom experience.  Tenure provided a guarantee that teachers could not be let go for purely financial reasons, individually or collectively. In essence, the erasure of tenure makes it very plausible, even probable, that districts that face increasingly inadequate funding will resort to replacing more experienced teachers with less experienced ones simply to save money on payroll across the board.

A GRIM OUTLOOK

The architects and proponents of the elimination of tenure assert that longevity and compensation plays no role in teacher retention, but the harsh realities behind district budgeting will definitely get in the way of their feint. Eventually, as the long term consequences of corporatization begin to become painfully apparent, it will become all too obvious that a major outcome, one that was surely quietly foreseen by the politicians and cronies who engineered this new status quo, will be the wholesale stagnation, perhaps even the collapse, of educators’ salaries, borne of the combination of a mirage-like compensation scheme coupled with the irresistible siren call to hold down payroll costs through creative use of the human resources office.

The expectation that teachers endure such an oppressive debasement, all the while happily but hopelessly striving to avoid a pink slip, is an unreasonable expectation; it will be exposed in due time. The charlatans and pretenders who constructed such an untenable framework will be discredited. Unfortunately for millions, careers will have already been destroyed, and educations already compromised, by policies fraught with contradiction and inequity, and erected on a foundation of pure greed. As public education withers, and the hackneyed, subterfuge-saturated contention that so-called “education reform” was predicated on student success begins to evaporate, profit will be exposed as the nexus joining so called “reform” and a newly lusterless education system. The cynically sinister motives behind the whole enterprise will be laid bare for all to finally see. Kurt Browning will share, with many other posers, a legacy of destruction.

THE ATTRITION CLOCK IS TICKING

As Solochek tells us in his Gradebook article,  “…the number of nonrenewals has grown along with the number of annual contracts, which about half of Pasco County teachers now have.”  The situation does not bode well for teachers’ unions.  Unions depend on dues money in order to survive. Membership is going down as a direct result of the elimination of tenure.  Roughly half of Pasco county’s teachers have “tenure” (either a Professional Service Contract or the increasingly rare Continuing Contract, which preceded the PSC). They are insulated from arbitrary termination by a layer of union protections, themselves the product of decades of often very difficult work done by union negotiators on their behalf.

Quite expectedly, the percentage of tenured teachers who are union members is much higher than the percentage of teachers on annual contracts. Laden with the knowledge that their employment status is all but at the principal’s pleasure, they have a keen appreciation for the delicate nature of their position, and, as a group, are quite understandably disinclined to join an organization that offers very little in the way of tangible help at the end of the school year, when annual contracts come up for renewal. It’s hard for teachers on annual contracts to justify the monthly expense of union membership when every May they essentially come up for termination, and the union can’t help one iota. That reality was not lost on the legislators who put us here.

THE WORST CASE

Every June, another wave of tenured teachers retires. The last teachers to gain tenure will all retire in 25 years or so. After that, barring some sort of shift in the Florida legislature, tenure will be a thing of the past. In the worst (and very plausible) case, teachers’ unions, in Florida at least, will have long since vanished through sheer attrition. They will have been very shrewdly legislated out of existence.  Job security for teachers will be nonexistent. Consequently, those who decide to teach will not plan to stay. Five-year careers will become the norm. Teachers’ salaries will be uniformly low. There will be a conspicuous paucity of educational expertise among teachers. In their stead, corporately authored, scripted curriculum will supplant individual lesson plans as well as academic freedom. K12 education will become prepackaged and accordingly bland and uninspiring.

All throughout, cronyism, nepotism, kingdom-building, and patronage, along with all the other institutional and bureaucratic maladies that tenure was designed to abate, will reign supreme in a tortuously labyrinthine morass of educational mediocrity.

Ironically, it may very well be best for things to go badly. Nothing else quite shows how good things once were, than how bad they are.

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