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    State sets school spending deadline

    Schools often agonize over how FCAT award money should be spent and delay a decision as long as possible.

    By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 29, 2002

    Coachman Fundamental Middle School in Clearwater is one of the few exceptions. Its staff needed only a few weeks to decide how to spend $54,000 in state money awarded this year for improved student performance on the FCAT.

    More typical is Ballast Point Elementary School in Tampa. The staff there sat on its $42,000 pot of cash for months last year, finally spending it at the last possible moment.

    "We just didn't talk about it," said assistant principal Mary Cunningham.

    Next year, that would be a big mistake.

    Starting in 2003, schools that receive state recognition money will have to meet a Nov. 1 deadline for submitting a plan on how to spend it.

    If they are late, they will lose control of the money, which will automatically be distributed among classroom teachers.

    That would mean no new computer labs or textbooks, no student parties, no bonuses to custodians, cafeteria workers and school nurses.

    State lawmakers set the deadline this year in hopes of resolving -- or at least shortening -- the annual arguments that divide many schools trying to decide how to distribute their award.

    Many educators doubt it will help.

    "The old saying that money is the root of all evil becomes very, very true," said Yvonne Lyons, director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

    Consider Robin Fate, who was a teacher at Tyrone Middle School in St. Petersburg last year when the school earned $112,850 in bonus money.

    When Fate transferred to an exceptional student education center after the school year ended, she was cut out of the award. So were several other employees who transferred.

    "What they did was take the greatest amount of money and split it the fewest possible ways," said Fate, 36. "It's greedy. It's ridiculous. It's not like I didn't put my heart and soul into that school."

    School recognition money, first distributed in 1999, is awarded based on a school's performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Schools that earn an A grade get money, as do schools that show improvement.

    This year, the state awarded $121-million to 1,300 schools.

    The money has to be spent on employee bonuses, temporary personnel, equipment or materials. The final decision is made by each school's staff and its school advisory council, which includes parents, community members and teachers.

    Most schools use the money for employee bonuses, a practice at the heart of many debates. Schools often struggle to decide which employees should get the money, and how much each should receive.

    Should it go to teachers there this year, or those there last year? What about retirees and teachers that transfer? What about custodians and cafeteria workers?

    Should teachers get more money than the school secretary? Or should everyone get the same amount?

    A proposal to give teachers three times more money than blue-collar workers at Gaither High School in Hillsborough caused hard feelings this fall, said Mike Schutz, a teacher and chairman of the school's advisory committee.

    An agreement was finally reached to give teachers about one and a half times more -- $1,400 for teachers and $1,000 for custodians and lunch workers.

    "It was a little bit divisive at first," Schutz said. "When we put the two teams together and came up with a final decision it was a lot better."

    Some people, including Judith Kennedy, the principal of Valrico Elementary in Hillsborough, say the new deadline could make such negotiations more difficult.

    Her school spent three months this year considering the best way to spend its $97,824 award. It decided to give $1,000 bonuses to teachers and $500 to other school workers.

    A final agreement wasn't completed until the end of November. But if the new deadline had been in place, the school would have had no say in how the money was spent.

    "I don't think a school should be penalized if it doesn't come to a decision quickly," Kennedy said. "Taking a lot of time to make a decision doesn't mean you're in turmoil."

    Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said the school recognition program is a "silly idea," with or without a deadline.

    The teachers union is challenging the program's constitutionality. The pending lawsuit, filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court on behalf of Pinellas teachers, claims the state failed to write rules making sure the money is divided fairly.

    The union urges schools not to spend the money on employee bonuses.

    "We tell faculties who get it they ought to treat it like it came from Uncle Louie," Moore said. "Don't start thinking that you earned it."

    Cunningham, of Ballast Point Elementary -- the school that waited until the last minute last year -- said she doesn't think a deadline will take the rancor away.

    "It's a terrible process," said Cunningham, whose school accelerated its decision this year and voted to spend the money on staff bonuses. "The only thing we learned was get it over with fast."

    -- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813)226-3400 or .

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