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    Teachers snubbing performance bonus

    Extra money for selected educators at public schools labeled as poor performers is largely being refused on principle.

    By KENT FISCHER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 2000


    Last spring, Florida lawmakers decided one good way to retain outstanding teachers at low-performing schools would be to throw them a few extra bucks as an incentive to keep working with struggling students in the face of rising standards.

    But the idea has flopped in Pasco County, where teachers at the district's two low-performing schools have decided the program, along with the state's controversial school rankings, are so misguided that they're refusing to take the money.

    Their colleagues at Pasco's two alternative schools, eligible because they work with potential dropouts, are also passing on the cash because the state didn't provide enough money to give each teacher a bonus.

    Pasco principals say they expect at least all but a handful of the 250 eligible teachers to pass up the money, collectively eschewing about $122,000.

    Officials with the state teacher's union and the Department of Education say the protest might be the first of its kind over the program, which set aside $12.5-million for teachers at schools with subpar standardized test scores.

    Teachers at Hudson and Zephyrhills high schools say they don't consider their schools to be failures, so they have no reason to accept the money.

    "Taking the money would go against everything I believe in," said Zephyrhills High's Rob Brown, who started teaching eight years ago and makes about $35,000 a year. "If we don't make some noise, this will never get fixed."

    Last year, Hudson and Zephyrhills high schools received D grades from the state, primarily for their subpar reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Under the new program, "outstanding" teachers at schools receiving Ds or Fs from the state are eligible for the money.

    The new state program is off to a rocky start in other districts, too.

    In Pinellas County, only about half the eligible teachers applied for the money, and the program still faces a legal challenge from the teacher's union and an unfair labor practice complaint. In Hillsborough County, educators are upset because some teachers got bigger checks than others.

    Pasco's protest isn't without precedent. A year ago, five Sarasota teachers returned the $500 checks they received as a bonus for helping boost test scores.

    The deadline for Pasco teachers to apply for the bonus is Tuesday, and teachers at both Hudson and Zephyrhills say they'll hold protest rallies that afternoon. Thirty-six teachers at Hudson have sent a letter to Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher outlining their position.

    "Not a single teacher I know of had any problem turning down the money," said Patsy Shafchuk, who wrote the letter. "(Lawmakers) have no clue what it's like to work in a school. They have this notion that education is a product that can simply be produced. It's not a product, it's a process."

    Teachers at each school said their decisions to pass on the money came at faculty meetings last week where their principals explained how the system would work. Teachers at each school said they had no idea other faculties were considering taking similar measures.

    "We have a strong, supportive administration, a caring community and a veteran staff," said Dave Jones, a 23-year teacher at Zephyrhills High. "It would be hypocritical of me to take this money. I absolutely refuse to do battle with my colleagues over a couple of bucks."

    About 50 teachers at two Pasco alternative schools are also saying no thanks to the money. Their beef isn't with the school rankings so much as it is with the Legislature's determination that only "outstanding" teachers can earn the bonus.

    "How can one teacher get it and not another if they're both doing the same job?" asked Doug Van Etten, who has taught potential dropouts for 20 years and makes a little more than $47,000. "Basically, we decided as a group to say, "no, thank you.' "

    Teachers at Hudson and Zephyrhills high schools said they, too, didn't like the idea that some teachers would get the money over others. They also didn't like that the program ignored the contributions of media specialists, guidance counselors and new teachers, none of whom are eligible for bonuses.

    "Rather than pulling us together, it becomes a means of driving us apart," said Hudson High Principal Greg Wright. "We're all in this together, sink or swim."

    "It's not about political motivation," said union president Lynne Webb. "It's people saying, "We're not D teachers.' "

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