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As Florida vies again for federal schools grant, some still worry about union support

In recent weeks, a flurry of Florida teachers unions signed a pact to show they're behind the state's second bid for a $700 million federal Race to the Top grant.

But even as 54 of 67 unions pledged their support, several reached side agreements with their school districts that some say could undermine the state's bid.

Several side agreements clarify that, if unions object, districts will not impose changes to things like teacher pay and evaluations. Others suggest any such changes will end when the grant money runs out — which would appear to counter the Obama administration's goal of using Race to the Top to sow long-term reform.

"It's a problem," said Andy Rotherham, a Virginia education analyst who has advised states on Race to the Top applications.

It's unclear how many side agreements there are. But they nonetheless raise questions about whether some districts will follow through, Rotherham said. They also create "unfair competition" with other states that will be trying to show they too have broad union support, but don't have potentially conflicting side agreements.

"There has to be some transparency," Rotherham said. "But it's too late for that."

Florida submitted its second Race to the Top application Tuesday, with Gov. Charlie Crist prominently noting that 54 unions had signed the "memorandum of understanding."

The application did not include the side agreements.

In response to written questions submitted Tuesday morning, Florida Department of Education spokesman Tom Butler said in an e-mail that the side agreements were not included because they are "separate from the official signed (agreements) that each district was required to submit." Butler said the application notes three districts included side agreements in their submissions to the Education Department, but the Times confirmed at least two more.

Butler said the department has no plans to find out how many side agreements there are, or to round them up. The state teachers union says there may be a dozen or more.

Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough do not have them. Hernando does.

It's also unclear what all the side agreements say. Several districts and unions used a Duval County agreement as a template, then modified it.

Some agreements are still being hashed out. The school board in Broward County — Florida's second-largest district — is expected to vote on one today.

"It's an extra safeguard," said Broward union president Pat Santeramo.

A U.S. Education Department spokeswoman said she could not comment about the side agreements or Florida's application. Florida's first application, submitted in January, had support from only five unions — and narrowly missed winning.

For the second go-round, Crist appointed a task force that allowed unions to significantly revise the memorandum of understanding. Among other revisions, the task force inserted language that better protected unions from having changes imposed by districts during collective bargaining.

Some unions said that still wasn't enough. Some wanted wording that said the reforms would end if money dried up.

With the state agreements "you didn't have that option," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando union. "This one is saying, 'No, we look at our budget.' If we can't do it, we're not doing it."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

As Florida vies again for federal schools grant, some still worry about union support 06/01/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:46pm]

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