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Bonus for good grade causes bickering again

Like many schools, St. Petersburg High squabbles over money given as a reward for improvements.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 9, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- When St. Petersburg High School made an A in academics from the state, it earned more than $200,000 to spend however it wanted.

ST. PETERSBURG -- When St. Petersburg High School made an A in academics from the state, it earned more than $200,000 to spend however it wanted.

For what happened next, it might have been marked down a bit for conduct.

Some wanted bonuses for teachers. Some wanted to upgrade the library. Some wanted a little of both. Many were unhappy.

Who should decide? Before it was over, the principal brought in a mediator.

In the end, the people who made the decisions gave some money to teachers and will spend some on the media center and other school needs. The checks -- a teacher with a master's degree in the 10th year of her career will receive $859.50 minus deductions -- go out this week.

The scene at St. Petersburg High is by no means unique. It is played out throughout Florida as teachers, parents and community leaders battle over how to spend the money schools receive from the state as a reward for excellent or improved test scores. The $100 per student adds up, and volunteer committees are left working out how to spend large sums of money.

Invariably, many teachers think they should get the money for a job well done. Parents often say it should go directly to the school.

What happened at St. Petersburg High shows how good intentions can still cause bad feelings when money is at stake, and how things can sour still more when a little bad math requires a perceived promise to be broken.

The school got money last year, too. Teachers took home the entire sum that time, and it was evenly split among them. But it was a divisive process.

Again this year, Principal Linda Benware formed a committee of the School Advisory Council and staff volunteers to decide how to use the money. She hoped for a smoother system.

The money, said Luanne Ferguson, the SAC chairwoman, seems to "bring out the differences within a school and the different objectives in a negative way."

"This is what happens when you are dealing with money in an environment where there are no processes or procedures in place. You have to work through it," Ms. Ferguson said.

"I wish I could tell you I had a solution, because it is important to value the staff within a school and it is important to meet the needs of the school. If you talk to different SACs at different schools, everybody is struggling to develop a process," she said.

"I have learned that these funds are not an unalloyed blessing for the schools, because of the potential for divisiveness," said Dr. Susan Betzer, who co-chaired the committee set up to decide how the money was to be proportioned.

Micki Morency, a parent and SAC member who sat on the committee, said that because of her experience growing up in Haiti, she brings a unique perspective to the debate.

"Because we are living in a democratic society, I can't think of a better way to do it," she said. "The school will get the money and the teachers will get the money."

After discussions, committee members concluded that the staff should get 50 to 60 percent of the $212,857 pot, or about a week's pay.

"Then, when it went to SAC, they voted on it and then we had our meeting and somebody said a week isn't exactly right," Ms. Ferguson said.

Agreeing that the five-day proposal might be considerably lower than the 60 percent goal, committee members decided the bonuses should be increased to six days of pay. Staffers accepted that proposal.

Then somebody did the math, and the committee discovered that its estimate had been wrong. Six days in bonuses would mean giving the staff more than 75 percent of the recognition money.

"It was our fault as a committee. We should have waited until we had the figures," said Ms. Ferguson, adding that they were hustling to cut checks before the holidays.

The new proposal called for a new vote by staff. It also brought ill will from some people who thought the SAC was trying to take away what was rightfully theirs, Ms. Ferguson said.

"I think there was a lot of confusion," she added.

This was the point at which Ms. Benware, who was not a member of the committee, brought in a mediator.

"It seems as if the committee had reached a point where there was confusion about who had agreed to what," she said. "The two stakeholder groups seemed to have some differences that I thought could be best resolved if there was someone there to mediate."

Ms. Ferguson termed the dissension an unfortunate development, adding that "this committee, from the first meeting, one of our objectives was to maintain a positive approach.

"People see needs differently. I think the one thing we wanted to do was to really honor every proposal that came before us. Unfortunately we made a mistake. It was all in good faith. We really believed that the six days would accomplish the 60 percent."

"There were lots of people that were upset" about the change, said Sandra Patterson, a language arts teacher who co-chaired the committee.

"I am happy with the 60/40," she said. "I am happy that I'm getting some bonus money, and some money is going to the school. I did hear a few murmurs that some money is better than none."

The bonuses, which will be handed out to 164 members of the staff, including 105 teachers, will be calculated on an employee's hourly rate of pay. Only those at the school last year and still there now will get bonuses. Last year, all the recognition money, which was divided equally, went to staff. Many returned their share to the school, said Ms. Benware, who will do the same this year.

Before discussions began of how this year's money should be spent, the principal said, she made both her staff and the advisory council aware of the school's needs.

"I felt that I had a responsibility to let them know what some needs of the school were. Our computer labs need to be updated. Our media center is insufficient in the number of the volumes of books that we need for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation," she said.

Ms. Benware said teachers deserve bonuses.

"I also believe that some money needs to go to the school. We have greater needs than we can meet with the budgets that were provided by the state," she said.

"If the Legislature gave us more specific guidelines . . . it would make the process less confusing."

Controversy over the state funds is widespread, said Theresa McCormick, vice president of the Florida School Advisory Council.

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