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Schools

Pinellas declines $6.1M for teachers

Siding with teachers, School Board members call the plan divisive and too reliant on FCAT results.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published February 28, 2007


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LARGO - Pinellas School Board members told the state to keep $6.1-million in teacher bonus money Tuesday night, doing so with a dramatic twist that cemented the district's reputation for sometimes defying Florida's education bureaucracy in Tallahassee.

Taking a cue from its teachers, the board voted 5-2 to reject the Special Teachers Are Rewarded plan, known as STAR, joining a handful of other Florida counties.

The plan would have given 5 percent bonuses to 25 percent of Pinellas teachers. But a board majority, siding with leaders of the teachers union, said STAR was ill-conceived and divisive, using the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test as its chief measure of performance. They also objected to efforts by the Florida Department of Education to force the plan on districts by using the power of the purse string.

Now that Pinellas has rejected its version of STAR, the state will take the $6.1-million earmarked for the district and put it into a pot to be shared by districts, like Hillsborough, which have approved the plan.

In addition, the state has threatened to force districts that reject STAR to implement a bonus plan anyway and pay for it themselves. In Pinellas, that could mean a hit of about $6-million to the budget, and officials said Tuesday that one way to make up the difference is to forgo raises next year for all district employees.

But two factors worked in recent days to build the board's confidence in defying the state. Lawyers for the Florida Education Association, the statewide teacher union, say there are no rules to allow the state to carry out its threat. School Board attorney Jim Robinson agrees. In addition, legislative leaders now say they recognize STAR's flaws and plan to revise it. The plan was one of the last pieces of education reform put in place by Gov. Jeb Bush before he left office.

Depending on their years of service, Pinellas teachers stood to receive annual bonuses of between $1,700 and $3,100 starting this summer. But in a hastily arranged election held across the school system Monday and Tuesday, they voted overwhelmingly to reject STAR. With some ballots yet to be counted Tuesday night, the tally was 4,266 to 191 against the plan.

"They sent their message and I think this board stood up and said, 'We're with you,' " said board member Jane Gallucci, who played a leading role in the unusual way the vote unfolded.

Board member Nancy Bostock started Tuesday's special meeting by making a motion to approve the STAR plan, but no one seconded it. After a followup motion to vote against the plan, Gallucci "called the question" after only two of her colleagues had a chance to speak, a procedural move that forced an immediate vote.

The entire episode took 12 minutes, clearly upsetting board chairperson Mary Brown, who wanted more discussion.

Gallucci explained her move later, saying: "I don't believe anyone would have said anything differently than what has been said before, and I don't think (more debate) served any purpose for the teachers. I think we needed to take a clean vote to say up or down."

Brown and Bostock, who voted in favor of STAR, argued that taking the money would have been better than coming away with nothing. Bostock said the board often accepts federal money with strings attached.

"This is $6.1-million that won't go to our teachers," she said. "I've never seen this board turn down money in any circumstance, even for marginal programs."

Brown argued that the district accepts state bonus money every year under a separate plan that rewards schools for good FCAT performance.

"That is so divisive and yet I haven't seen anyone rushing up to the Legislature and really pushing hard and saying this should come to all teachers," Brown said. The STAR plan "was going to offer us some options and I felt we should give it a chance, then work to make it better."

Voting with Gallucci to reject the plan were board members Janet Clark, Carol Cook, Linda Lerner and Peggy O'Shea.

At a board workshop earlier Tuesday, some board members worried that rejecting the STAR plan would not look good when the district comes to taxpayers next year with a request to renew a special property tax that allows Pinellas to elevate teacher pay.

Most board members concluded that rejecting STAR and its $6.1-million would not be a problem if the district clearly communicated its reasons for the decision.

Among the arguments against the plan was its reliance on the FCAT to gauge teacher performance, even though thousands of students don't take the test and many teachers don't teach the subjects tested.

Another problem, many said, was cutting the bonuses off at the 25 percent mark. Many more teachers deserved at least a better shot at the money and under a system that better measured their performance, critics argued.

In a sparsely attended public hearing before the vote, three teachers told the board that STAR would dampen a spirit of cooperation in schools.

"You're going to have teachers who don't want to share their great ideas because they want to be the one getting the bonus," said Debbie Minkle, a teacher at Lynch Elementary.

As she left the board's meeting room, Michelle Dennard, president of the Pinellas teachers union, shook the hand of a district official and proclaimed a victory on principle.

"My mama told me, 'If you don't stand for something, you fall for everything,' " she said.

[Last modified February 28, 2007, 06:32:00]


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