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Saturday, Mar 28, 2015

West Hernando educator will lead teachers’ union


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West Hernando Middle School sixth-grade science teacher Jo Ann Hartge, 61, was selected by Hernando Classroom Teachers Association members to be the next Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president.

Hartge received 122 more votes than incumbent president Joe Vitalo, or a total of 444 votes over Vitalo’s 322. There were 1,100 potential voters, of which 334 members did not vote.

Vitalo, who will be 51 this June, also will conclude his second three-year term June 6.

Hartge, who has taught elementary, ESE and middle school with the district going on 26 years, was a full-time teacher and the HCTA president in the ’90s and implemented “automatic step” annual raises for teachers.

“I’m to continue negotiations and get our salaries where they should be,” Hartge said. “Teachers have other issues in this county, for one not enough time to do what’s required, and it’s a huge issue for teachers: stress, health issues and causing a lot of teachers, especially young teachers, to leave the profession.”

That was stressed by many teachers she’s visited with in the last several months, Hartge said, and she will sit down, lay out a vision with the HCTA board of directors this summer and better know how that aligns with incoming superintendent Lori Romano’s philosophies.

“I want to know the issues going on in the county and all they’re dealing with,” Hartge said. “Hopefully we’re going in the same direction for a strong, collaborative partnership, and for me it’s all about what we can do to make the kids successful and achieve — how can we have the best teacher?”

Vitalo said he was not surprised by the election results, calling the challenges of his tenure a “perfect storm” of budget cuts, rising costs, reduction in work force, performance pay and, among other things, new state-implemented evaluation and accountability systems that threaten to close schools.

“I think really what it comes down to is people are frustrated with reforms in education, and I get the brunt of it,” Vitalo said. “I didn’t make the policies, all I can do is smooth it out, and they want it stopped.”

As teacher’s union president Vitalo moved average teacher pay in Hernando County Schools from 63rd to 35th in the state, which Hartge praised him for. Based on this year’s figures, teacher pay is expected to improve again this year.

Vitalo also was instrumental in preventing employee health insurance costs from rising over the last two years, worked with the district to improve its financial reserve and moved more administrators about the district in his tenure than all previous presidents.

Prior to Vitalo becoming president, his predecessor extended term limits from two years to three years. During Vitalo’s tenure, Vitalo eliminated term limits but said he did not intend to stay longer than another term or two.

Hartge said she intends to serve for one three-year term, as were more akin to the term limits back in 1997-2001 when it was two years.

“Since I am going to be 62 — and no, I am not in ‘DROP’ no matter what everyone says — I want to do one three-year term and want to do some mentoring for up-and-coming leaders, then turn it over,” Hartge said, emphasizing she is not eligible for “DROP” retirement. “I guess people will think I’m going to be released from class and do nothing for three years, but I’m not the type to sit around and do nothing.”

Vitalo said he has unspecified, personal goals he’d like to accomplish before he retires, which is something he couldn’t do if still in the presidency. As his term as HCTA president ends, Vitalo said his forward career could be like going back in time, and he’s looking at four viable options once he leaves his presidential post: return to a classroom-teaching position, take a nonclassroom job such as assessment teacher, work in the administrative office, which he is qualified to do, or the fourth option.

“The fourth is I can disappear,” Vitalo said, but like Hartge, he said he’s not one to sit around and do nothing, either.

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