Schools struggle with state rewards
By STEPHEN HEGARTY
When school recognition awards were announced in August, Carrollwood Elementary School principal Janet King didn't get overly excited. She didn't make giddy announcements over the intercom about the school's $77,339 windfall.
Some on her staff wondered why.
"I was thinking "If they only knew what they were getting into,' " King recalled.
The first-year principal already had experience spending school recognition money at another school. She knew that sometimes it's tough to put tens of thousands of dollars on the table and ask staff and parents to agree on what to do with it.
"Let's just say it can get extremely complicated," King said.
Now in its third full year, the state's school recognition program continues to present both a blessing and a curse to school staffs across the Tampa Bay area and the state.
During a tough year like this when budgets are being slashed, the money -- earned by schools with exceptional or improved test scores -- is a godsend. And at many of the 842 schools that shared in the $76-million statewide, staffs and parents simply set priorities, took votes and spent the money.
But in schools around the state, staffs and parents struggle mightily to do the right thing.
At some schools, staffs reach an impasse and simply cannot agree. Feelings are hurt. Votes are taken and retaken. Mediators are brought in. At one school, a parent filed a grievance, and now a district panel will have to decide whether the process was handled properly.
"It's real interesting what the money brings out in people," said Betty Lou Turner, principal at Tampa Palms Elementary.
To many people in Wauchula, the two elementary schools in town are sort of like two parts of one school.
Hardee County's North Wauchula Elementary handles kindergarten, first and second grades. Wauchula Elementary handles grades 3, 4 and 5.
Only one of them is eligible for school recognition money. And sure enough, Wauchula earned an A rating from the state, good for a $68,520 school recognition award.
"The question was, should some of the money go to the teachers at the feeder school, since they prepared all those kids in the earlier grades," said Greg Dick, deputy superintendent for the Hardee schools district, which has six schools. The vote was entirely in the hands of Wauchula Elementary.
"You have to remember, people at those schools are related to each other," Dick said. "They go to the same church together. They're neighbors. They've known each other their entire lives.
"So you're not just voting on something simple."
The Wauchula Elementary staff decided to give itself bonuses and not to include the feeder school.
At Palm Harbor Middle School, their A rating from the state earned them a $138,468 school recognition award.
The staff drew up a list of possibilities for spending the money. At one extreme was the idea of spending all the money on bonuses. At the other, spending all the money on equipment at the school.
"The (school advisory council) said absolutely no to some options," said principal Pegoty Lopez. "As far as giving all the money to the teachers, they said no. We came up with a combination."
"We helped our school. We put some money into a fund. We rewarded the teachers," said parent Nancy Hudson, the co-chairwoman of the Palm Harbor Middle School Advisory Council. "Since the SAC had to give its blessing, we didn't it spent all in one area."
Lopez said the conversations got complicated when it came time to decide who on the staff should get money. Money can go to teachers only. Or to all staff, including custodians and lunchroom workers.
"There's the question of whether a fifth-grade teacher should get more money because it's her kids who took the test," Lopez said. "Then you have the custodian who says, "Fine. Next time one of your kids throws up, I'll send you a mop.' " The money was shared among staff members.
At Carrollwood Elementary, the staff and parents have struggled to spend the $77,339 reward. The majority of staff wants bonuses, as teachers at so many schools do. But the staff and SAC have not been able to agree.
A mediator was brought in. And a parent filed a grievance questioning the procedures used. Consequently, if the staff ends up getting a bonus, it is highly unlikely employees will get checks before the winter holidays, as so many staffs have.
"The thing that's sad is this takes countless hours away from what we should be doing," said King, Carrollwood Elementary's principal. "Let me tell you, I would like to be done with this."
Despite the cost of the school recognition program, it still is very near to Gov. Jeb Bush's heart. It is one of the more upbeat features of his school accountability plan. Each year, he and the education commissioner visit a few schools that received money, and celebrate their reward with them.
Education Commissioner Charlie Crist, who joined Bush at a Hillsborough County school this year and paid a visit to his own alma mater, St. Petersburg High School, to present a check this year, defended the program.
"Most of the schools, I think, are comfortable," Crist said. "This is a sort of a utopia for flexibility -- giving schools a say over how they spend their money. Who better to know how it should be spent?"
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