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Spending windfall stumped schools

Staffs that won state School Recognition aid because of their test scores agonized over how to put it to good use.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2000


At one school it came down to soul-searching and secret ballots.

Curlew Creek Elementary in Palm Harbor got $84,000 of the state's School Recognition money, and the staff members had to decide how to spend it. They narrowed a long list down to three choices: equipment and technology, staff bonuses, or a combination of equipment and bonuses.

When the ballots were counted, choice No. 3 carried the day.

The school bought some cool new laser printers, some much-needed storage shelves, and a few picnic tables so kids could eat lunch outside on a nice day. But most of the money, $65,000, went to staff bonuses. In February, everyone -- including full-time custodial and lunchroom staff -- got $1,000 each.

It has been six months since Gov. Jeb Bush and Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher gave away $30-million to reward 323 Florida schools for their academic performance. As Gallagher said, the money came "with no strings attached."

Many school staffs started out like giddy lottery winners, making wish lists and holding lengthy brainstorming sessions. Then came the hand-wringing, the debating, the paring of the wish lists.

"I lost a lot of sleep on this," said Jean Johnson, principal at Pasco County's San Antonio Elementary School, which had $83,000 to spend. "We kind of started out with suggestions like "Let's all go on a cruise,' but it ended up being a lot of work."

Johnson's school spent its money on classroom supplies and equipment, playground equipment, an after-school program and some books. No cruises.

Of Curlew Creek's decision on the staff bonuses, principal Claudia Stewart said, "There was a lot of soul-searching on that one." She and a few staff members elected to forgo the bonuses and put the money back in a school fund. "It's fun to think about all the things you can do, but these were not easy decisions."

"At first, it was a lot of fun," said Lewis Brinson, principal at Benito Middle School in Tampa. "We agreed finally, but it was a tough decision." About $500 per staffer was spent on bonuses, and the rest went for equipment, classroom supplies and a couple of copiers.

The state allocated the money to reward schools that showed high achievement or substantial improvement on state tests. They got $100 per student, a multiplier that resulted in some nice six-figure awards at larger schools.

In the Tampa Bay area and across the state, money went to all the schools that earned A grades under the state's controversial school grading system. But several B and C schools -- even some D schools -- also got money for improvement.

The giveaway has been controversial from the start. Critics claimed it was creating a cutthroat system where the rich would get richer. Gallagher attempted to deflect that kind of criticism by tinkering with the rules so that now even F-rated schools can qualify for money, so long as they are headed in the right direction.

The Pinellas County teachers union has attacked the program in court, claiming that giving out money for teacher bonuses at selected schools wreaks havoc on a salary structure that is hashed out in negotiations and is designed to reward teachers equitably.

"This is disequalizing and unfair in the worst way," said Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association Executive Director Jade Moore. "It's unfair to pay some teachers more just because the state wants to. If I were the superintendent, I would give $100 per kid to all the schools that didn't get any of the state money."

In a supercharged climate, school staffs sat down and decided how to spend a windfall -- something educators generally don't have to contend with.

In Hernando County, a couple of schools voted to give staff bonuses in the range of $100 to $500. However, one school thought otherwise -- for the most practical of reasons.

The faculty at Suncoast Elementary didn't want to see a large chunk of the incentive cash gobbled up by the tax man. Instead, Suncoast's staff put the largest chunk of its money into 48 IMac computers, which could be bought tax-free.

"Teachers are very, very practical people," said Suncoast principal Tizzy Schoelles. "It was a pragmatic decision."

At some schools, the spending decision became a political statement. What could have been a fun spending spree turned into a moral dilemma.

Lighthouse Elementary in Jupiter gave some of its money to nearby schools that did not qualify for the state money. One Florida middle school gave some money to the elementary schools that feed into it, reasoning that those schools contributed to the middle school's success.

"Commissioner Gallagher has always supported the idea of partnerships between high-performing schools and other schools," said JoAnn Carrin, spokesman for the commissioner. "If that partnership extends to sharing resources, that's fine."

Many school staffs debated the merits of the state's new rewards system and found it lacking. But they spent the money anyway.

"I don't believe this is headed in the right direction at all," said Don Blanchard, principal at Highland Lakes Elementary in Palm Harbor. "But, what can I tell you, I'm not crazy enough to turn it down."

At Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater, the staff's suggestions went to both extremes: give some away to other schools, or keep it in the form of bonuses. Neither of those ideas survived.

"We went through a lot of lists," said Oak Grove principal Patricia Brown, whose staff had $115,000 to spend. "We came up with a long list. Then a shorter list. It took a while to get to our final list."

At Oak Grove Middle the money will be spent on a laundry list of sensible -- perhaps boring -- ideas. Books. Additional phone lines. Paper for the copier. Classroom supplies.

"The state isn't funding what they need to be funding in education," said Dave Schoelles, principal at Fox Chapel Middle School in Spring Hill. The staff put about a quarter of its $115,485 windfall into staff bonuses. The bulk will go to pay for a portable computer lab and a handful of computer-linked overhead projectors.

The experience, many educators said, has been revealing, as staffs have been forced to re-examine their priorities and reasons for being in the profession.

"I thought it was going to be a lot of fun," said Lane Vick, principal at Citrus Springs Elementary, where $96,000 was spent on a tutorial software program, some improvements to the fields and playgrounds, and a new sprinkler system so the dirt campus could sustain grass. "We had meeting after meeting. We broke into small groups. We talked. We fussed.

"This was probably one of the hardest things we've ever done."

-- Times staff writer Robert King contributed to this report.

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