COLLIER COUNTY — Maria Sancho waved to cars that honked at her as she stood at Collier Boulevard and Immokalee Road Friday afternoon.
“They are seeing their children’s teachers being mistreated. And, apparently, they don’t like it from all the honking,” said the Palmetto Elementary School fourth grade teacher. “What are we telling our kids when we treat teachers this way? We’re saying education is not important.”
More than 70 teachers and supporters rallied at Collier Boulevard and Immokalee Road Friday afternoon. Their mission was to draw attention to what they call attacks on public education.
“There is something going on in public education. If you disagree, we are asking you to contact your legislators about it,” said Cal Boggess, president of the Collier County Education Association, which represents the district’s teachers.
Specifically, the teachers were rallying against proposed legislation from state lawmakers and several policies in Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed budget. Those include plans to evaluate them on student testing, place new teachers on one-year contracts and force them to contribute five percent to their retirement — a portion presently paid by their employers.
“We don’t want to become another Wisconsin, bottom line,” said Estates Elementary School teacher Jack West, referring to the battle between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, and public employees over a budget bill that would strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights. “We’re out here for the kids. ... I don’t think (lawmakers) have the kids at heart. I feel there are other places to cut than the classroom.”
Boggess said what is happening in Wisconsin is a wake up call for public employees and for public unions across Florida.
“The big things for us are what’s happening with the governor’s budget, (The Florida Retirement System and plans to have teachers pay a portion of their salary into that system) and what they are doing to unions across the state,” he said.
State Republican lawmakers are proposing legislation that would end automatic union dues deduction by public employers, forbid using dues for political activities and require re-certification for any union with membership below half of the employees it represents by July 1st.
The rally was one of nine Collier County teachers held across the county Friday. More than 350 teachers participated. Many wore red T-shirts with “Defend Public Education” written across the front. Many of the teachers held signs read, “Quality education is not expensive. It’s priceless” and “Be Smart — Support Teachers and Public Schools.”
Sara Barry, a Spanish teacher at Corkscrew Middle School, said the talk at the Statehouse has been very scary for teachers.
“We’re worried there will be a loss of jobs without due process. That good, quality teachers will be out of jobs or see their incomes lowered,” she said. “I don’t understand why there is such an attack on education when everyone says it is important to have well-educated children in this global economy.”
Carlye Trickett, a Cypress Palm Middle School teacher, brought her stepson, 9-year-old Alex, to the rally. Alex, whose father and mother are also teachers, held a sign that read, “Five percent less? My dad is at his second job right now.”
“It’s a really emotional issue for us,” Trickett said. “We are not putting money into (Alex’s) college fund right now because we are trying to pay the basic bills. If we have to pay five percent of our salaries to a pension fund, that’s $8,000 a year (between Trickett, her husband and Alex’s mom) that we won’t have.”
Deba Phillips, a reading coach at Sabal Palm Elementary School, said she has been in the education profession for 30 years.
“It’s my passion,” she said. “But education is always put on the back burner. I am here united, standing with my colleagues, because we need to treat our teachers better.”
Phillips said she looks at her profession and doesn’t see teachers being taken care of.
“I have been in education for 30 years and I don’t see retirement coming my way in the near future,” she said. “With all this talk of cutting pay, with merit pay. And it is expensive to live in Collier County.”
While Collier teachers were rallying on this side of the state, President Barack Obama was in Miami, visiting a local high school and speaking about education and innovation in the future. In his remarks to the public, the president didn’t bring up the labor union fights going on in Wisconsin and Florida, but he did praise teachers.
“We need to honor teachers,” he said. “Now, let’s face it, I mean, we also have to make sure there’s accountability for our schools. And turning things around here meant replacing a principal and replacing some teachers. And that’s tough work. ... But your school did it the right way — with a process that even had the support of teachers and their local unions, because you recognized that partnership among teachers and school administrators and the community, that’s the path to reform. It isn’t easy.”
“So outstanding teachers and principals, a common mission, a culture of high expectations, that’s what it takes to turn a school around,” Obama said.
The rallies held by the teachers on Friday are just some of the ways citizens are mobilizing to express their displeasure with some of the proposed legislation coming down the pipe. On Tuesday, which is the first day of the Florida Legislative Session, concerned residents in Naples will host an Awake the State rally from 4 to 6 p.m. Participants will meet at City Hall, march down Fifth Avenue South and end up at Cambier Park to show their displeasure with Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed budget cuts.
The Teachers Association of Lee County will also participate in the Awake the State protests, including one from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Cape Coral City Hall. In addition, teachers will hold simultaneous sign-waving rallies at major intersections throughout Lee County.
Connect with K-12 education policy reporter Katherine Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/katherine-albers/.