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    Budget plan offers bonus for teachers

    The proposal includes an $850 ''retention bonus'' for most teachers, but the move has union officials fuming.

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Thousands of classroom teachers around Florida are likely to get an $850 "retention bonus" no later than Oct. 15.

    Lawmakers included the bonus in the state budget, part of a $152-million program to recruit and retain teachers as Florida faces a teacher shortage over the next decade. The budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is scheduled to be approved Friday.

    The idea of a bonus originated with budget negotiators in the state House, who wanted to pump money directly into the classroom rather than spend it on administrators and bureaucracy.

    "I think it sounds great," said Republican House Speaker Tom Feeney. "Helping our teachers every time we get a chance is a good thing, not a bad thing."

    Told that the teachers union was criticizing the bonus as a way to get around collective bargaining, Feeney said: "The teacher unions are not only fighting education reform, they are fighting their own members. I think most people would be delighted to get an $850 bonus."

    Wayne Blanton, of the Florida School Boards Association, said the $850 bonus might may be the only extra money teachers get in this tight budget year.

    The Legislature's budget for education allows for an average 4 percent increase in per-student spending next school year, but that figure varies district by district. Educators say that with the increased cost of health care and other issues, there will be little money left for teacher raises.

    Classroom teachers will be eligible for the $850 bonus if they:

    Got a satisfactory or higher performance evaluation in 2000-2001. Are employed full time in a Florida school district in the 2001-2002 school year and worked full time in a school district in 2000-2001.

    Hold a valid Florida teaching certificate.

    It is unclear how many teachers will be affected, but the number is expected to be large. The Florida Education Association estimates that there are some 150,000 classroom teachers in Florida, and the vast majority do get at least a satisfactory performance evaluation.

    School districts will have no choice but to give the bonuses to eligible teachers. The state budget mandates that the bonuses be distributed no later than Oct. 15, and the money is not subject to school district discretion.

    That irritates the state's teachers union. "I believe it is another attempt to circumvent collective bargaining on the part of this very conservative (legislative) leadership that does not believe in collective bargaining," said Cathy Kelly, head of governmental relations for the Florida Education Association.

    In addition, the one-time bonus does not increase teachers' base salaries and does not figure into their retirement, Kelly said.

    The Legislature also lets districts give signing bonuses to new teachers -- a proposal by Gov. Jeb Bush -- and give bonuses to teachers who work in struggling schools where students are performing poorly on state tests. Those bonuses will also come out of the $152-million pot set aside for teacher recruitment and retention programs.

    Legislative analysts have estimated that Florida will need some 160,000 new teachers over the next decade. That is considerably more teachers than Florida's teacher colleges and out-of-state recruiting efforts will be able to produce.

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