Gov. Rick Scott, wearing his trademark embroidered shirt and cowboy boots, grinned at the front of the classroom as students filled in the seats.
First period: American Government Honors.
“Good morning, I’m Rick Scott. Anybody going to run for office?” he asked the Immokalee High School students — no takers, but a few chuckles. “So, we’re going to talk about campaign contributions.”
Scott spent the rest of the school day Thursday playing teacher, his sixth such stop working regular jobs across the state as part of his “Let’s Get to Work” days. Previous stops have included a Panama City Beach restaurant, the Port of Miami and a Tampa doughnut shop.
But standing in for public school teachers carries added significance for Scott, who angered many teachers this year by pushing new retirement contributions and merit-based pay. Both measures have been challenged in court by the Florida Education Association.
Some educators saw his visit Thursday as a chance to smooth relations.
“I think the governor came here with a mission,” said Eliud Hernandez, a math intervention specialist at Immokalee Middle School. “He knows that teachers are sore at him, and I think his mission was basically to say ‘This is what we’re dealing with. This is what I have to deal with.’”
Scott devoted most of his time to students, but during lunch he talked policy with a small group of teachers, including Hernandez, and Collier County Schools Superintendent Kamela Patton.
“I just got elected, and we made significant changes in education,” Scott said. “I’m sure there’s always going to be continued pressure at the state level to change education, probably no different than when you bring anybody new in, like a superintendent or a principle.
“If you have ideas — I’m not an educator by training — this is the time to try to make change,” he said, and instructed an aide to pass out his card.
Hernandez, 45, is a Republican who said he did not vote for Scott because of his education policies. He still has reservations about merit-based pay, which, under a law passed this year, would tie teacher raises partly to student test scores.
Band instructor Philip Barton also emerged from the meeting with concerns about merit-based pay. While half of teacher evaluations would be based on standardized tests, the rest is a hodgepodge of unspecific performance evaluations
“We need to make sure that the merit pay is based more on how you’re doing your job than on kids’ test scores,” Barton said. “It has to be based more on the quality of your delivery.”
Scott said he would try to ensure a fair policy.
“One thing that’s always hard is you’ve got to try to make things as fair as you can,” he said. “You try to figure out how to improve it every year.”
And Scott repeated concerns that the Florida Retirement System pension plan is less than 100 percent funded. Reforms to the system this year now require all public employees who participate in the Florida Retirement System to contribute 3 percent of their pay toward their plan.
Because of the employee contribution, school districts saw huge savings that helped offset state cuts to education funding. It relieved Collier County Public Schools from a burden of about $12.5 million.
Recently, though, Scott has suggested he would like to seize those savings to help fund the retirement system.
“Obviously, we’d like to keep the money locally,” Patton said. “Right now we’re OK because we were able to keep it for this current year, but next year that would be a hole. So then we have to cut something.”
It was Scott’s second visit in a month to Immokalee. In October, he came to the Immokalee Technical Center to push careers in technology and engineering and to sell his legislative jobs agenda.
“We’re glad he’s here,” Patton said. “It gives us a chance to show off our schools and to have a chat with him about what’s happening in education. ... But he’s very, very focused on the lessons and the kids today.”
The governor spent time studying the lesson plans for each of the seven classes he taught, a spokesman said, and it seemed to show. Scott engaged the 20-or-so students in each class with Socratic questioning as he paced professorially at the front of the room, teaching subjects from economics to science at Eden Park Elementary.
Some students asked for his autograph, and he frequently digressed with tales about his family and his experiences. Once, he paused during a middle school lesson on early American agriculture to mention “I milked a goat when I was in Africa one time.”
In another public school visit in August, Scott worked in the cafeteria at an Orlando elementary school.
“I think it’s received as the publicity stunt that it is,” FEA spokesman Mark Pundlow said. “Nobody can just pick up a lesson plan and teach.”
Politics aside, teachers said hosting the governor served as an inspiration to students, many of whom seemed thrilled.
“I did not know he was coming, so it was a great surprise,” said Aaron Daniels, 17, a senior at Immokalee High School. “Immokalee doesn’t really get recognized for positive things, so for the governor of Florida to be in Immokalee is a good thing.”
Scott is in Naples today for a Veterans Day observation in Cambier Park.