tampabay.com

'Absurd' teacher bonuses okayed

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published February 21, 2007


LARGO - The superintendent called it "absurd."

The leader of the teachers union called it the brainchild of the "petulant former governor," Jeb Bush.

The 50-something School Board member said it made her want to break out her bell bottoms and tie-dyes, maybe start a protest march.

"The '60s in me just can't do it," said Jane Gallucci, speaking of the choice that she and the rest of the board faced Tuesday: approve a teacher bonus plan - a plan they say is rubbish - or lose millions of dollars.

Deal or no deal.

The board took the deal by a vote of 5-2, but held its nose over a plan that will award 5 percent bonuses this summer to teachers and other school employees deemed to be in the top 25 percent of their craft under a state formula.

The formula is based on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, though many of the eligible employees don't directly teach the subjects tested - reading, math, science and writing. Pinellas officials say it is fraught with problems that will leave many deserving educators unrewarded, turn employees against each other and dampen their impulse to collaborate.

The plan is known by its acronym, STAR, which stands for Special Teachers Are Rewarded. Its champions at the Florida Department of Education say it is a long-overdue measure of accountability for the teaching profession.

Each district is required to submit its own version of the plan by March 1. Otherwise, its share of bonus money set aside by the Legislature will be split by other districts that do comply. What's more, districts that don't submit plans will be forced to award bonuses anyway, using money from their existing budgets.

In Pinellas, the sum at stake is $6.1-million - an amount the district can ill afford to turn down or risk losing.

A majority of the School Board followed the advice of superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who said the district should approve the plan, qualify for the $6.1-million in state money, then hope STAR dies through legal challenges. He also said Pinellas should join efforts to lobby the state and Gov. Charlie Crist to give districts more time to produce more thoughtful plans.

Wilcox described himself as a supporter of "pay for performance" for teachers. He called it "an idea that is past due in public education." But he was adamant that the STAR plan is rushed, deeply flawed and has been unfairly forced on districts with a "gun-to-head mentality."

Gallucci and board member Janet Clark voted against the plan, saying the better approach would be to stand up to the state.

"I really don't appreciate Tallahassee's bullying tactics," Clark said.

"I'm not ready to throw away $6-million, but I can't swallow it either," said Gallucci. "Rewarding (only) 25 percent of our teachers is wrong, absolutely wrong. ... If you let the bully bully you, you get bullied again."

Tuesday's action cleared the way for a vote in the next few days by members of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. Jade Moore, the union's executive director, said he expected the membership to roundly reject the plan.

That will set up a meeting Tuesday or next Wednesday that will force the School Board into another corner: stand with its teachers or take a final vote to impose the plan against their will.

Moore said the union worked with the district on a more palatable formula for the bonuses. But state officials shot down each one of the eight versions.

Among the problems cited by Pinellas officials are the provisions on bonuses for employees such as guidance counselors, media specialists and school psychologists. Those employees, which make up about half of the union's membership, will earn points toward a bonus based on overall learning gains in their schools.