DADE CITY — Without doubt, the staff at Academy at the Farm charter school could have used bonuses in this tough budget year.
First-grade teacher Amanda Reutimann is having her second child soon. And like everyone else, fifth-grade teacher Virgil Jones has household expenses to meet. Let's face it: Teachers don't make huge amounts of money, and by working at a charter school, they aren't even putting money toward Florida's retirement system.
But when the school received $24,565 this fall in state recognition funds — a bonus based on the school's FCAT performance — no one on the 40-person faculty and staff even suggested putting the money into their own pockets. The teachers have a deciding say in where the money goes.
"Basically, we need it for the kids," Jones explained. "We're trying to incorporate more technology. We have a lot of needs, and we want to meet those."
Besides, second-grade teacher Janet Nathe said, "the kids earned it. They're the ones who took the test."
Such a world view does not often carry the day in Pasco County schools.
Last year, the district received $3.4-million in recognition funds, which can go toward bonuses, materials or temporary employees. Slightly less than 87 percent went toward bonuses at the 41 schools, including charters, that got the money.
This year, the district got $3-million for 40 schools, including charters. The economy being bad as it is — no one has gotten raises or step increases — the amount set aside for bonuses rose to 92.5 percent.
Ideas to spend the money on school supplies, laptops for teachers and paraprofessionals got waylaid at some schools, as the guiding principle seemed to be recognizing teachers and staff members for their hard work. Some schools gave their teachers the option of taking a bonus or leaving the money at the school for materials and support services, with mixed results.
River Ridge Middle, which adopted such a plan, saw 98 percent of its award go to bonuses. Centennial Middle, which had a similar plan, ended up with 61.5 percent of its money in bonuses and the rest dedicated to technology or to a new anti-bullying initiative.
"There weren't the hard feelings there were in the past," Centennial principal Tom Rulison said, crediting the teachers' ability to choose as a reason the school avoided a fight over the money. "It worked great."
A few years back, more Pasco schools including Centennial Middle used much larger portions of their funds for things other than bonuses.
"But man, that's a sacrifice in this day and age," Rulison said.
Maybe so, the staff at Academy at the Farm acknowledged. Still, lead teacher Fran McCrimmon said, "the majority has always wanted to give it back to the school. We're here for the kids."
It's been that way every year the school has received recognition funds since it opened nearly seven years ago.
Over time, the school has used the money, which has ranged from $100 per student to its current $85 per student, to pay for remedial math and reading books, paraprofessionals to work with students, computer software, teacher training and more.
This year, the school invested a big part of the money in interactive SMART Boards.
Any doubts about the worth of the purchase get washed away upon entering Nathe's classroom. Even before she's received training on how to use the SMART Board, her students clamored to try it so enthusiastically that she broke it out for a couple of trial lessons.
Kids begged to have a chance to solve the problems projected from the Internet onto the screen. With a touch of their finger, or a specially designed electronic marker, they put together puzzles, figured out math equations, identified action verbs in a sentence, all with the rest of the students watching and helping.
Nathe sat at her laptop monitoring the work, electronically storing pages completed by students for future reference.
The possibilities, she said, seem endless — once she knows exactly how to use it.
Some education groups have urged Florida lawmakers to stop giving out the recognition funds, especially during these tough times. One argument is that the money simply causes disputes at the school level when it could go into operations across the board.
It also creates a dilemma for the teachers: They could look greedy if they take the money themselves, or they could look satisfied with their pay if they give the money to the school.
Several lawmakers have balked at the idea of cutting the award, saying they want to keep rewarding excellence regardless of the economic climate.
Even McCrimmon, a retired Pasco principal, said she hoped the Legislature might reconsider.
"I wish the state legislators instead of doing the merit pay and recognition funds and all that would let teachers go back to college for their master's degrees," she said. "Why not pay for that instead of giving this money that people fight over?"
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.