Debbie Andler and her husband ditched the hubbub and long commutes of West Palm Beach six years ago for a small town life in Everglades City. There, only a couple of stop signs stood between their home and her job teaching at the local school.
But last summer, that came to a quick end: Andler's five-minute drive turned into a nearly hour-long hike to North Naples after school district officials transferred her to Laurel Oaks Elementary.
"I've basically given my life to teaching and they do this," said Andler, who now works at Shadowlawn Elementary but wants to return to Everglades City School. "We don't want to crush kids. Why are they crushing teachers?"
At more than 2,000 square miles, Collier is the largest county in the state. Its school district has a jurisdiction that stretches to several schools an hour or more from urban Naples. That means teachers and administrators reassigned to or from those outlying schools are almost guaranteed a long commute to a school far from home.
Collier schools Superintendent Kamela Patton said administrators take all factors into consideration before deciding to transfer an educator. Very rarely do they decide to move a teacher, she said.
"I wouldn't do it unless I know that that's what's best for our children," Patton said.
Since Andler was reassigned, she and her husband, Tom, have fought the district — going as far as the state Department of Education and Gov. Rick Scott — demanding administrators reverse the decision or move her to a closer school. The transfer, the couple says, was made for invalid reasons and has caused Debbie Andler panic attacks and other health issues.
Tom Andler called the move a "witch hunt" and said his wife was transferred for a comment about all of her students earning 100 percent on a state test, and for not providing direct guidance to students during another test. Debbie Andler denies making the comment and said officials misinterpreted her actions during a test. She said no one ever told her there was a problem.
And, the couple points out, Everglade City School's grade for the 2011-12 school year jumped to a C, two spots above the previous year. For that reason, they say, Debbie Andler should be acknowledged as having helped the school.
The Andlers argue that administrators should move educators only as a last resort — even if performance is the issue. And, they say, they should be moved to the closest school.
"If a teacher is having trouble, do everything you can to help them," Tom Andler said, "give them all the help that you can before you ruin their lives."
'How can they do this?'
On the last day teachers reported to Everglades City School last year, administrators announced that some would be called to the office. Debbie Andler stuck around, waiting as teachers were called one by one.
She got a call and went to the office. There, she cried after learning she was being transferred involuntarily along with four other teachers.
"Why are they doing this?" she recalls thinking. "How can they do this?"
She said she's never been to a district where administrators transfer teachers without allowing them a chance to improve.
Patton can transfer a teacher at any time if she feels it is necessary, according to their contracts. While the district works with the teacher to make the situation as "win-win" as possible, there's no geographic requirement stipulated in the contracts, Collier schools spokeswoman Leanne Zinser wrote in an email.
Teachers at Everglades City School and at schools in Immokalee receive a stipend of about $800 per year due to the "critical shortage of teachers residing there," she wrote.
Of about 3,400 Collier teachers, only five moved involuntarily last year, Patton said.
In general, she said, transfers are made because the district has "extra eyes" on a school. In the case of Everglades City School, Patton said the state and district both brought additional assistance last year. Extra scrutiny came because the school scored an F on the state Department of Education's school grades. It earned a C this year, but was projected to score another F.
"At the end of the day, all of our eyes matched on what is best for the children of the school," Patton said.
Ready to roam
Not all educators are unhappy to be transferred to or from outlying schools.
Bob Spano, one of 12 principals affected by administrative reassignments Patton made earlier this year, said he was "honored" when she chose him to take over at Everglades City School. In 36 years, he's worked at 10 different schools — most recently, Mike Davis Elementary in East Naples.
"I've always been kind of like the roaming principal," Spano said. "Every three or four years I go to a new school. I enjoy that; I enjoy the challenges that come with that."
Spano said he doesn't mind the nearly hour-long trek from his North Naples home to Everglades City. He carpools with the school's assistant principal, who lives nearby.
Patton said she made the reassignments based on whose skills best fit each school and placed experienced leaders in those that are most challenging. She said she would never decide to move or not move an administrator because of distance.
The superintendent pointed out that transfers in districts that cover less land often still mean longer commutes, because they're in cities with heavy traffic. Before coming to Naples, she worked in Miami. Here, Patton said, people trade city traffic for longer distances.
"But people know that when they move here," she said.
The superintendent said bringing a new perspective into a school can help it improve.
"It isn't that you stay in one school for 10 years and it's close to my home," Patton said. Instead, she said, "it's about skill sets for children."
Spano said he once thought he'd spend his whole career at the Ohio school where he started. But he moved to Florida for the weather and found out he enjoyed the challenge of change.
"I think it's probably more realistic nowadays that you're not going to end up where you started," Spano said.
But he wasn't moved for a performance issue. Andler said part of the reason for her distress about the transfer is she feels embarrassed around members of her tight-knit community.
"I feel like hiding," she said. "I don't want them to see me because if their kids had me and they always thought I was wonderful, the parents, what are they thinking now?"
She and her husband plan to continue fighting the district's decision. She scoffs at the idea that transfers come with the job as an educator.
"There are teachers that stay at the same school their entire career," Andler said. "If I stayed where I was in West Palm, I would probably be at the same school."