tampabay.com

Bonus plan reconfigured

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published March 15, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Hoping to end months of acrimony within Florida's schools, House and Senate leaders Wednesday unveiled a proposed teacher bonus plan that gives school districts significant flexibility and control in how they assess and reward top teachers and administrators.

The measure would repeal the controversial, $147.5-million Special Teachers Are Rewarded plan adopted last year under Gov. Jeb Bush and replace it with a new bonus program that educators say is much more palatable and fair.

"STAR was probably one of the most acrimonious programs to be implemented in recent memory," said Christian Doolin, a lobbyist representing more than three dozen small school districts including Citrus and Hernando. "This proposal places responsibility and decisionmaking in the hands of the districts and school administrators. It's much better."

Lawmakers hope to pass the proposed fix and send it to the governor by the end of next week.

"We listened," said Rep. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, chairman of a House education committee that's been working on the proposal for weeks. "We really listened."

Education groups and school district lobbyists complained repeatedly that STAR was rolled out too fast, that districts haven't had enough time to develop performance measures to truly gauge how a teacher is doing, and that it gives the Department of Education too much control.

Districts like Pinellas and Pasco got so frustrated they decided not to participate in the voluntary program - even though it meant giving up millions of dollars.

Under the proposed Merit Award Program, school districts and their unions would submit locally developed plans for measuring teacher performance by May 1 of this year and by Oct. 1 of each year after that.

Participation would be optional.

The Department of Education would have only technical oversight over those plans and could not "impose its own judgment," said Republican Sen. Don Gaetz, former school superintendent in Okaloosa County.

"These plans should be locally designed and developed, not dictated and enforced from Tallahassee," Gaetz said.

Another criticism of STAR is that it places too much emphasis on standardized tests such as the FCAT and unfairly handicaps teachers in non-FCAT subjects such as music or art.

Even Gov. Charlie Crist said Wednesday that he doesn't want teacher bonuses to be "based on FCAT alone," a significant shift in philosophy from his predecessor.

So lawmakers propose that students be allowed to take the FCAT or other state, national or locally developed tests, and that those test results account for "no less than 60 percent" of an educator's assessment.

The remaining 40 or so percent would be based on professional practices like how well a teacher maintains discipline and engages students, or how well a principal recruits and retains teachers.

"The governor was adamant that this not be based solely on a test, and that resulted in the 40 percent," said Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka. "After property tax relief and insurance issues, I think the governor would say this is his most important issue. His fingerprints are on this bill."

STAR limits bonuses to the "top 25 percent" of instructors at each school and caps those bonuses at 5 percent of a teacher's salary.

Under the proposed legislation SB 1226/HB 7021, bonuses would be 5 to 10 percent of the district's average teacher pay. Gaetz said that ensures longtime teachers do not have an advantage over new ones.

The bonuses would be open to "top instructional personnel," including teaching teams, and to school-based administrators at both regular public schools and charter schools.

The bonuses would not count toward retirement benefits.

Districts could reward as many instructors and administrators as they want, as long as they have enough in their share of state bonus money to give all teachers at least the 5 percent bonus.

"But we hope districts don't dumb it down" just to spread the money as broadly as possible, Pickens said.

There is $147.5-million in the STAR program for this year, including $11-million for Hillsborough, $3.5-million for Pasco and $6.1-million for Pinellas.

Crist wants to double the program to $290-million next year. The Senate doesn't yet have a budget proposal, but the House wants to put $197.5-million toward the bonuses.

In a district like Pinellas, where the average salary is more than $46,000, teachers could see a more than $2,000 boost.

Even though Pinellas decided recently not to take part in STAR, the district could participate in the Merit Award, under a provision in the bill that takes into account the statewide confusion and debate over STAR.

For the current year only, districts such as Hillsborough that have approved STAR plans could implement them instead of a Merit Award plan. Next year, they would have to submit a new plan under the new bonus plan.

It's unclear whether Pinellas will bite.

"If the state gives us enough flexibility to do what we think is important ... then we can agree to it," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "It opens the door, but I'm not sure it opens it wide enough."

Times staff writers Jeff Solochek and Tom Tobon contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com.