More than a quarter century ago, the principal and assistant principal of St. Petersburg High sat down with Jade Moore, the legendary leader of the Pinellas teachers union.
St. Petersburg High was starting a new program for its brightest students, a brain grinder called International Baccalaureate. It would be the first in Florida. And to boost its chances for success, the school wanted IB teachers to provide academic coaching — and to be paid accordingly.
"We said we want to work the teachers during their planning periods, coaching students, trying to keep them in the tough program," said Don Driskell, who was the assistant principal at the time and served as IB coordinator until retiring in 1996.
Moore, who died in 2008, was not a fan of paying some teachers more than others. When a state senator suggested more pay for teachers in high-poverty schools, Moore dismissed it as a "glitzy solution" that wouldn't do much for student success.
But on this one, the district said okay. And so did Moore.
"He said the fair thing is to pay them if you require them to do it," Driskell said.
• • •
Twenty-seven years later, the "academic coaching salary supplement" is still a part of the union contract with the district. But it's on life support. And it has never been more divisive.
The supplement, equal to 14 percent of a teacher's base salary, can range from $5,181 to $8,971. But it's only available to teachers in the district's four most prestigious magnet programs: the IB programs at St. Petersburg High and Palm Harbor University High, the Center for Advanced Technologies at Lakewood High and the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High.
This year, 93 teacher are receiving it, at a total cost of $650,749.
After the district proposed killing it last week, some teachers threatened to retire while hundreds of their students joined Facebook pages to register opposition. Parents are upset, too.
"I've had quite a few calls," said St. Petersburg High principal Al Bennett. "They're concerned about the services provided, the integrity of the program."
Supporters are expected to make a stand at Tuesday's School Board meeting.
But as the spotlight has grown, so has the backlash from the masses of teachers who don't get a big supplement. Who's to say, they argue, that they don't work as hard? And isn't it easier to teach the smartest kids?
"They have chosen to work with the brightest and supposedly the most motivated," said Sidney Caldwell, who retired from Safety Harbor Middle School in 2007 after 44 years as a math teacher. "You take some students at Countryside High School, somebody's got to almost read for them."
School Board chair Janet Clark, a former special education teacher, said many teachers probably didn't know how much the magnet teachers were making. She said she didn't know herself until recently.
"All these years they've been making $7,000 more than all the other teachers? It ain't right," Clark said.
The district is targeting the supplement as it scours places to whack another $26 million from its budget. The stark financial reality has even turned magnet teachers against each other.
Some IB teachers say their supplements should be viewed separately. The two IB programs generate more than $1 million a year for the district, through a state formula that awards money for each IB test passed and each IB diploma granted. The teachers work with students on IB diploma requirements such as a 4,000-word senior essay and a community service project.
But CAT students took more than 800 Advanced Placement tests this year, and pass rates on those tests bring extra money too, said CAT coordinator Pete Oberg.
"We're not sitting idly by, not contributing our share," he said.
According to Driskell, the supplement began the same year for the St. Petersburg High IB and PCCA at Gibbs. He said it was given to CAT teachers the following year and to north county IB teachers in 1995 (the second IB program began at Countryside High in 1995 and moved to Palm Harbor University High in 1996.)
CAT teachers are given students to coach, but teachers at PCCA, widely regarded as a premier fine arts program, are not, the district says. Those teachers put in extra hours to support shows, plays and performances after school, but, district officials are quick to say, so do fine arts teachers at other schools.
PCCA director Ralph Nurmela did not return calls for comment.
• • •
The argument is being made again and again: Cut the supplement, water down coaching, watch as quality drops.
"This coaching model works, as anyone can see from the percentage of our International Baccalaureate students who attain the prestigious IB diploma," Douglas Yarbrough, an IB teacher at Palm Harbor University High, wrote in an e-mail. "Our success rate is consistently among the best in North America."
The IB Conference of the Americas could not provide school-by-school data regarding pass rates on IB exams. But according to a December analysis in U.S. News & World Report, the IB students at Palm Harbor University High passed 97.6 percent of their exams last year. The national rate was 68.8 percent; the Florida rate, 77.5 percent. At St. Petersburg High last year, the passage rate was 90 percent, officials there said.
Bill Lawrence, who oversees the district's magnet programs, said an IB program's quality can't be measured by pass rates alone because other factors, such as entrance criteria, also play a big role. He said the IB programs in Pinellas are among the most selective in Florida.
District officials also say they have not identified other Florida districts that pay magnet teachers the same way Pinellas does.
But Hillsborough does, at least for some of those teachers. Many IB teachers, for example, receive pay for using their planning period to assist students with projects, assignments and exam preparations. District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said IB teachers are contracted and paid an extra hour a day in exchange.
That means they're eligible for $4,229 to $7,704 more per year.
The arrangement is not exclusive to IB teachers. Of 568 Hillsborough teachers who get extra pay for extended work with students, 80 are in IB programs.
At Lee County's Fort Myers High School, IB teachers earn hourly wages for leading night classes six times a year to help students prepare for exams. But they don't get a compensation deal like the one in Pinellas.
That doesn't mean, though, that teachers there aren't similarly devoting their planning periods to helping any of the 900 IB students enrolled at the 1,890-student school, said principal David LaRosa.
"I guarantee you 90 percent of the time they still have kids with them during that planning period," he said.
• • •
Clark, the School Board chair, said the supplement will cause friction among teachers when the district renegotiates its contract with the union.
Union president Kim Black couldn't be reached Friday. But last week, she said while there was concern about equity issues, supplements have a place.
"This is one bargaining unit," she said, "and I don't think it's healthy when teachers point fingers at other teachers."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8707.