Avossa drops teacher meeting requirement, blames “isolationists”

Updated Aug 18, 2016

Blaming opposition from “divisive” teachers, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa has dropped his plan to require all county teachers to spend up to 90 minutes a week in group meetings.

In an address to school board members, Avossa said Wednesday he was revoking his mandate that teachers spend part of their classroom planning time in collaborative meetings. The decision came after more than a week of objections by the teachers union.

“If folks want to be isolationists and they want to be divisive, let them be divisive,” he said, visibly frustrated. “I’m not going to worry about it. I’ve got too many other things that folks are expecting me to do.”

Avossa argued that research shows students perform better at schools where teachers meet regularly to discuss the best ways to teach students and plan classes.

Teachers at most schools already do collaborative planning, he said, but he wanted to ensure that the same collaboration was taking place at all campuses and that enough time was spent to make substantial progress.

“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results,” he said.

But when teachers returned to school last week, many learned from principals that the “collaborative meetings” would come at the expense of classroom planning time, which is guaranteed by their contract and which they say they need in order to do things such as grade papers and contact parents.

“Planning time is like gold to teachers,” said Kathi Gundlach, president of the county teachers union. “There’s so much more involved in teaching now than 10 years ago.”

While some teachers praised their schools’ collaborative planning sessions, the union threatened to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the federal government. Other teachers compared the push to the test-heavy academic program briefly imposed in 2011 by former administrators Art Johnson and Jeffrey Hernandez.

Union officials were especially angry, they said, because Avossa’s administration had tried previously to add the requirement directly into the teachers’ contract, then dropped the proposal during negotiations.

When it re-emerged in April as a unilateral mandate, the union responded with a cease-and-desist letter in July. The union says that administrators assured them then that the call for up to 90 minutes a week of collaborative planning would not be a requirement.

Avossa’s about-face on Wednesday surprised teachers. Just last week, Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen had called the meeting mandate “non-negotiable.” The union was gearing up for a legal battle.

But Avossa, blaming teachers and “misinformation” from media coverage of the controversy, said he came to realize that “you can’t mandate people to do something that’s not in their heart.”

“If you don’t want to sit at a collaborative meeting and you’re forced to go, this is what you’re going to do – you’re going to sit with your arms crossed, and you’re going to sit there and complain about being there,” he said.

“So you know what?” he said. “You don’t want to be there? Don’t go.”

Gundlach said she agreed that collaborative teaching was a worthy objective and said the union would work with Avossa to encourage more collaboration. But she said she objected to Avossa’s characterization of teachers who opposed the across-the-board mandate.

“Teachers who were concerned about losing so much planning time are not isolationists,” she said. “They are not divisive. They work together all the time. It’s just that this heavy-handed mandate at the time was concerning to them.”

Mike Dowling, a veteran middle school teacher who vocally opposed the meeting mandate, applauded Avossa’s decision, saying that “instead of being tied down in bureaucratic meetings, teachers are now able to focus on meeting the needs of their students.”

“The suggestion that teachers opposed collaboration was a false argument,” he wrote. “Teachers are by nature collaborators. We opposed top-down micromanagement from Forest Hill Boulevard. Dictate is not a synonym for collaborate.”

Even though collaborative planning will not be required, a school district spokeswoman said in an email that administrators expect it to continue at schools across the county.

“Teachers will undoubtedly continue to willingly participate in existing learning communities or choose to participate where it is new to a school because they believe in the benefit and value of this type of collaboration,” spokeswoman Amity Chandler said.