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Schools get their FCAT deserts

Five Suncoast school districts get more money from the state due to improved FCAT scores.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY
Published September 5, 2003

[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings joins Homosassa Elementary students in a "money booth," brought in to celebrate the school's $34,212 in FCAT reward money.

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In the state's carrot-and-stick approach to school accountability, it was time to deliver the carrots on Thursday.

Gov. Jeb Bush, Education Commissioner Jim Horne and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings toured the state separately Thursday handing out oversized checks to schools that improved their FCAT scores.

All told, Florida is committing $137-million to the school recognition awards this year - the most ever. That includes more than $21-million for five west central Florida school districts.

In a sobering sign of the times, some schools plan to use the cash to offset recent budget cuts.

"It looks like it's going to help pay part of my salary," said Peggy Pearson, assistant principal at Mount Vernon Elementary School in St. Petersburg. Like many assistant principals in Pinellas, her position was on the chopping block.

Jennings visited Homosassa Elementary in Citrus County on Thursday with a check for $34,212. There she joined some students in the school's "money booth," grabbing for handfuls of cash blown about by a large fan. The lieutenant governor snagged $10 and promptly gave it back.

Jennings is scheduled to visit St. Petersburg's Mount Vernon Elementary today.

The awarding of the supersized checks gives Gov. Bush a chance each year to shower some schools with money and praise, and to tout his education reforms.

"People all across the country are watching this great success take place," Bush said during a visit to Cambridge Elementary in Cocoa.

It also provides ammunition for critics.

"It's remarkable that they didn't put enough money into the education budget, and now they come to town for their photo-op handing out checks," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

Moore estimated that if the $6.4-million in school recognition money had been folded into the regular budget, it could pay for a 1.5 percent raise for Pinellas teachers. Because of the tight budget, the district is still negotiating possible raises.

The pot of school recognition money grew to a record level again this year, even after the cash reward program appeared in danger of being slashed. Lawmakers faced with tough budget choices talked about cutting the fund in half or eliminating it entirely. But Bush threatened to veto the entire budget if the school recognition money was not included.

He won that skirmish.

The total of $137-million in recognition money this year is up from $121-million last year and $76-million the year before. The number of schools qualifying for money also increased from 1,304 last year to 1,593 this year. That's not surprising, since so many schools earned improved grades in the state's A-through-F school grading system.

All the Suncoast school districts got more recognition money this year because of academic improvements. Hernando County schools, with $997,252, got more than double what they got last year. Both Pasco and Pinellas saw their totals increase by more than $1-million. Hillsborough saw only a slight increase.

The recognition money goes to schools that improve a letter grade or maintain an A grade. Schools that qualify get $100 per student. The money can be used for school improvements, such as computers or equipment. Or, as often happens, it can be used for one-time cash bonuses for staff.

Since the program started in 1998, many schools have had difficulty agreeing on how to spend the money. At some schools divvying up that kind of money has gotten downright ugly, with some even hiring mediators to work through the arguments.

Nevertheless schools welcome the challenge and the extra cash, which can be significant. For instance, Palm Harbor University High will get $230,425.

"This is completely new territory for us," said Lisa Roth, assistant principal at Rawlings Elementary in Pinellas Park.

The school missed out on school recognition money in the past because Rawlings earned a C grade every year until it earned a B for last school year.

"We'll have our first meeting next week to discuss it," Roth said. "Right now everybody is going to have to start thinking out what we should do with the money."

Rawlings will get a check for $66,379.

This year, if schools have difficulty deciding how to spend the money, the state will make the decision for them. According to a new law, if a decision isn't made by Nov. 1, the money automatically is divided evenly among teachers at the school.

That law was designed to put an end to squabbles between teachers and parents at schools, who often disagreed about whether to put the money into teacher bonuses. By law the decisions were supposed to be made by the School Advisory Councils, which include teachers and parents.

Some don't like the new law.

"If they can't agree, the law not only takes the decision out of the hands of the (School Advisory Council), but also out of the teachers' hands," said Vic Rowley, president of the Pinellas School Advisory Council Association. "I know there have been problems at some schools, but I prefer to see them make the decisions together."

- Times staff writers Matthew Waite and Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

[Last modified September 5, 2003, 13:01:52]


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