School board may reconsider exchange

A month after rejecting foreign teachers, some school board members express interest in holding a workshop on it


School Board member Josh Brown brought up the possibility of again seeking exchange teachers to help with Wakulla’s teacher shortage.
“We missed an opportunity,” Brown told fellow school board members on Tuesday, Feb. 21.

Brown brought it up as a discussion item at the meeting. Last month, there was standing-room only as teachers and other concerned citizens expressed  opposition to bringing in foreign exchange teachers – as though the plan was to replace current teachers, and much was also made about salaries and insurance for teachers.

At last month’s meeting, Brown made a motion to approve a contract with TPG, an Orlando-based company that facilitates foreign teacher exchanges, but it died for lack of a second.

Last week, Brown returned to the issue, and said he should have requested a workshop given how controversial the matter was, and how much bad information was out there.

He noted that the district could potentially get two or three teachers as the district faces a shortage of 25 teachers.
He expressed surprise at the teacher reaction at the meeting, saying they hadn’t gotten accurate information. “I would never want to disrespect teachers,” he said, adding that he would always put students first.

School board members Cale Langston and Melisa Taylor said they were interested in the exchange program and having a workshop. Langston said he didn’t support the matter last month because of the way it was presented; Taylor admitted at the meeting that she wasn’t sure how she would have voted if it had gone forward.

New school board member Eddie Hand said he would attend a workshop, but still stood by his opposition to foreign teachers. New member Laura Lawhon did not indicate an opinion.

Superintendent of Schools Bobby Pearce noted, though, that TPG withdrew its contract offer after last month’s meeting. The company’s CEO was upset after viewing Facebook video of the school board meeting in which comments were made that the CEO felt were xenophobic and racist. Pearce said the CEO told him that they do not want to bring in teachers to communities that don’t want them.

Taylor said she made phone calls to 12 of the 18 districts that have used TPG, and noted all of them were very pleased with the quality of teachers – adding that four of the districts had TPG teachers who were teachers of the year. She stopped making calls after TPG pulled the contract.

Langston said that, if Wakulla shows interest, maybe TPG would reconsider.

Pearce was adamant in his answer that TPG would not be back with a contract. He asked several times if the school board wanted staff to investigate other exchange vendors to see what was out there, but didn’t get a direct answer.

Langston bemoaned that a lot of informationwas received about the issue after the fact.

Hand said he was supportive of a workshop, adding that he stood by his vote from last month. Hand added that the issue never should have gone for a two-hour debate.

“I didn’t realize it was a hot topic item,” Brown answered.

“I didn’t realize it was a hot topic item either,” Pearce said as he stood up and motioned at staff and left the meeting.

A few minutes later, Hand said “I don’t agree with the superintendent getting up and leaving.”

“He didn’t need to be here for a discussion,” Brown answered.

Later in the conversation, Brown noted that his son has had six different days in the auditorium over the past month because of a lack of teachers. “Students got hurt,” he said, “and I’m not OK with that.”

Allison Garrett, vice-president of Wakulla Classroom Teachers Association, indicated a possible shift in the teachers union from opposition to support. She said the union’s opposition was not because the teachers were foreign, “It was the way it was presented,” she said. “It wasn’t that we were misinformed, we didn’t have any information,” she said. She added that if the issue was presented in a different way, it would be received differently.

Brown again reiterated that he wasn’t aware of how sensitive the topic would be. “But just because we got it wrong the first time doesn’t mean we can’t get it right the second time,” he said.

Taylor noted that at least three board members were interested in a workshop. It was stressed that the school board would advertise a workshop if one was to be held.