Mired in red tape. Too little, too late. Logjam.
The federal stimulus has gotten a lot of bad press lately. Critics say the government is spending too much, or not enough, or hasn't gotten money into the economy quickly enough to do any good.
But as school starts this week, visit Jen Stewart's classroom in Hernando County, and watch your federal dollars at work.
The 39-year-old teacher has years of experience and valuable certification in special-needs education. Students, parents and her bosses love her.
But they nearly lost her.
Stewart is one of more than 2,800 teachers across the Tampa Bay region whose job has been saved by the $789 billion federal stimulus — for now.
Without the cash infusion, local school officials say, the 2009-10 school year would have begun with massive layoffs and program cuts. And those budget problems could easily return in two years when the federal aid runs out.
"I don't know how we would have been able to open schools without the stimulus money," said Pinellas County superintendent Julie Janssen.
It "went straight into keeping our heads above water," said Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
In Hillsborough County, 1,511 jobs were saved or created using nearly $150 million in stimulus money. Pinellas kept 792 teachers working, while Pasco protected 411 jobs and Hernando protected 175.
Of the $53.6 billion in federal funds sent directly to state governments, 82 percent was earmarked for education.
Florida legislators used it in the spring to balance the budget, plugging a gap in education funding that saved or created about 28,000 teaching jobs statewide, according to state estimates.
That stimulus is now flowing directly into local economies and classrooms like Jen Stewart's.
Her room at J.D. Floyd K-8 in Spring Hill looks like a typical pre-K classroom: bins full of spelling letters, shelves of kid-friendly books like Ten Little Ladybugs, walls covered with bright Sesame Street posters.
Each of her students has a physical, developmental or cognitive disability. Parents say Stewart meets them at their level, drawing on their strengths and sending home a flurry of daily notes on their progress.
When 3-year-old Trevor Rueck joined the class with a speech delay, he was covering up his face in discomfort, said his mom, Alison. With help from Stewart and others at the school, he was soon talking up a storm.
"He came out of his shell with her," Rueck said. "I just can't express how great a teacher and person she is. When Trevor starts kindergarten, he's going to be ready for it because of people like her."
While Stewart had years of private preschool experience, she was just completing her first full year of public school teaching in the spring as the Hernando County School District was facing the prospect of laying off up to 200 teachers and other staff. With little seniority, she likely would have been among them.
Across the county, 22-year-old Jennifer Butler was substituting at another school. With nothing but an education degree, certification and one internship under her belt, she saw little prospect of a job.
Five months later, Butler is starting the school year today at J.D. Floyd K-8 with her own class of third-graders. Her husband is opening his first classroom at Parrott Middle School.
"It has helped so many people," Butler said, referring to the two-year stimulus. "People need the job right now. Hopefully my husband and I can buy a house and save, save, save."
But the stimulus can't be used just to save jobs. It must also pay for research-tested programs that help low-income, disabled and college-bound students, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan this past spring.
Officials say that has provided a rare chance for districts to invest in training, technology and reform efforts that have lagged due to funding cuts.
All four districts have assigned experienced teachers to coach their colleagues in literacy, math, science or special-needs issues. In many cases, that freed up entry-level teaching slots.
Pinellas used part of its stimulus to pay teachers for outreach to low-income families, superintendent Janssen said. Teachers came in four days early to meet parents, and got paid for their time.
Hillsborough poured money into teacher training this summer, boosting the number of sessions by 20 percent.
"Our teachers are now walking into the classroom much better prepared to address the needs of kids," superintendent Elia said.
But their job security may be short-lived, said Jim Warford, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators.
"We really are at the edge of a financial cliff here in Florida, regardless of how you feel about the stimulus plan," he said, urging legislators to find new funding sources for education. "They have only bought themselves a temporary reprieve."
Times staff writers Donna Winchester and Jeffrey Solocheck and correspondent Shary Lyssy Marshall contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.