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Schools may drop merit pay
The state's plan costs too much, say school officials and the teachers union president.
By TOM MARSHALL, Times Staff Writer
Published November 5, 2007
[Maurice Rivenbark | Times]
Hernando County School Board member Jim Malcolm says the plan may be too expensive, and too unpredictable in terms of state funding, to carry out.
BROOKSVILLE - Little more than a month ago, a divided Hernando County School Board grudgingly signed on to the state's latest merit-pay plan for teachers.
Swing vote Jim Malcolm said he would go along with the Merit Award Program, noting that a majority of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association voted for it. But he said he'd reconsider his position "the minute it veers off track" by costing the district any money.
By most accounts, that plan is now officially off the track.
Malcolm, union president Joe Vitalo and superintendent Wayne Alexander are now speaking with one voice in saying the plan may be too expensive, and too unpredictable in terms of state funding, to carry out.
"I don't like it, and my direction with the concurrence of a majority of the board is do not spend one penny on the implementation of this plan until we have money from the state," Malcolm said.
Board members Sandra Nicholson and Chairman Pat Fagan joined Malcolm in voting for the plan Sept. 27, while John Sweeney and Dianne Bonfield opposed it.
When the School Board meets at 1 p.m. Tuesday in a workshop session, members will discuss the possibility of taking a new vote to reject MAP, or possibly doing nothing at all - spending no money to carry it out, and therefore ensuring it doesn't happen in Hernando.
About two-thirds of Florida's 67 districts have rejected the program, including Pasco and Pinellas counties, according to the Florida School Labor Relations Service.
Under the state plan, up to 25 percent of Hernando teachers would get a salary bonus this year, based on supervisor evaluations and their students' performance on a test.
That bonus would be paid, at least for a year, with about $1.2-million in state funds.
But the district reckons it will have to spend more than $369,000 of its own money to devise tests and evaluation systems needed to get the program started.
And the state has said it won't make its portion of the funding available until the next fiscal year, so the district might have to pay even more up front and wait for reimbursement.
Such district expenditures would likely come out of teachers' own pockets in the form of lost wages or benefits, union president Vitalo said.
"At this point MAP is jeopardizing our bargaining over salary and benefits," he said. "The state cannot guarantee the funding, or the amount that should be funded."
Already the district faces a $3.5-million shortfall in its current budget, due to state revenue and enrollment shortfalls, said finance director Deborah Bruggink. And it's expecting to lose an additional $21.3-million during the next five years if voters pass a tax-relief amendment to the state Constitution.
In current negotiations over salaries and benefits, the district and union are discussing a 5 percent pay raise for teachers, with the district assuming the full cost of an expected 1 percent increase in health care premiums.
But the union won't support any merit-pay plan that cuts into salaries and benefits, Vitalo said.
Both Malcolm and Alexander said they worried that the district could face a lawsuit by the union for unfair labor practices if it backs away from MAP, having already approved it.
"They could say, 'You agreed to do this, you're not bargaining in good faith,'" Alexander said.
Vitalo said that won't happen, since the union vote in favor of the plan contained language that would nullify it if salaries or benefits were threatened.
Since both salaries and benefits are now threatened, and there are no guarantees of state funding, he said, the district will be held harmless by the union if it doesn't carry out the plan.