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Politics

Merit awards eclipse STAR plan

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published March 22, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - The state's controversial teacher bonus program is nearly dead, about to be replaced by a new, more flexible plan that would reward top teachers and administrators with an extra paycheck worth as much as $4,000 this year.

The Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved the Merit Award Program, which replaces the contentious $147.5-million Special Teachers are Rewarded STAR program adopted last year under Gov. Jeb Bush.

The House today is expected to pass the Merit Award Program, which is more palatable to educators and state advocacy groups. It would then go to Gov. Charlie Crist, who supports the merit pay so much, he wants to double the state money available next year to $295-million.

Freshman Sen. Don Gaetz, the Panhandle Republican who worked with House leaders to craft the Merit Award Program, said it is a much-needed fix to the "deeply flawed STAR plan we inherited."

"We've ended a bad chapter by repealing STAR," said Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County schools superintendent.

Educators and their lobbyists complained that STAR was rolled out too fast, that districts weren't given enough time to develop evaluation measures to truly gauge how a teacher performs, and that it gave the Department of Education too much control.

When the Merit Award Program was unveiled last week, educators thanked Gaetz and House leaders for listening to their suggestions and incorporating them into the bill.

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 Education Department would have only technical oversight over those plans and could not "impose its own judgment," said Gaetz.

Critics also said STAR placed too much emphasis on standardized tests such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, unfairly handicapping teachers in non-FCAT subjects such as music or art.

Crist doesn't want the rewards to be based on just the FCAT, a significant shift in philosophy from his predecessor.

The Merit Award Program allows students to take state, national or locally developed tests besides the FCAT, and those test results will account for "no less than 60 percent" of an educator's assessment.

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

STAR limited bonuses to the "top 25 percent" of instructors at each school and capped those bonuses at 5 percent of salary.

Under the new plan, merit bonuses would be 5 to 10 percent of the district's average teacher pay, ensuring longtime teachers don't have an advantage over new ones.

In Pinellas, the average salary is more than $46,000. In Pasco, it's about $41,000. Hillsborough officials did not have a districtwide average, but records show the starting salary is $35,012 and the highest pay is $72,927.

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 the state bonus money to give all teachers at least a 5 percent reward.

Even though Pinellas and Pasco decided recently not to take part in STAR, the districts could participate in the Merit Award Program, under a provision in the bill that gives them until May 1 to submit a plan.

Representatives from the Pasco County school administration and teachers union met Wednesday to discuss whether they want to renegotiate a performance pay plan. Top brass was enthusiastic, but union leaders were not interested in resubmitting the plan that nearly 90 percent of teachers rejected under STAR.

Times staff writer Jeff Solochek contributed. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 22, 2007, 01:36:44]


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