BROOKSVILLE — Fall is windfall time in many Florida public schools.
Each year for the last decade, schools that earned an A or improved a letter grade in the state's A Plus accountability system, which is primarily based on FCAT scores, receive award money.
This year, 11 of Hernando County's 22 schools will receive bonuses totaling nearly $873,000.
With the windfall often comes contention. The money can be used for bonuses for teachers and staff, to purchase educational equipment and materials, and to hire temporary staff to help maintain and improve performance.
Every year, the same questions arise. Should the money be spent on the school in a way that directly benefits students, go solely to bonuses, or a combination of both?
Should other staffers such as custodians and cafeteria workers receive money; and if so, should they get as much as teachers? What about teachers and staffers who moved to other schools?
The school's staff and school advisory council — which can be comprised of parents, teachers, students, administrators, support staff, businesspeople and other interested community members — decide how to spend the funds. If an agreement isn't reached by Nov. 1, the award money must be equally distributed to all classroom teachers currently working at the school.
The law doesn't specify how the decision should be made, so it's left up to schools.
"It's the most divisive issue a school can go through," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.
Hernando principals acknowledged the decisions can be even more difficult in a brutal economy when family budgets are hurting and the amount of discretionary money sent to each school has dropped.
"It is tough," said Susan Duval, principal at Springstead High School. Springstead will get $149,576, the most of Hernando's schools. "What are the personal needs, what are the needs of the school, and how do you balance that out?'' she said. "It's not easy, especially in these economic times. You can't make everybody happy. There's not enough of that money."
Most of Hernando's 11 schools seek to make the process as democratic as possible, with at least seven putting the issue to a vote by all staffers as well as the advisory council.
Duval and other principals and teachers say the decisionmaking process is going smoothly this year with little if any rancor.
At Springstead, the staff is encouraged to make suggestions on how to spend the funds and then participate in a series of votes. This year, helping staff weather a recession apparently was top of mind.
On Wednesday, the advisory council agreed with the vote of the school staff to split the money evenly among all of the school's roughly 200 staffers, including support personnel.
At least one school, Challenger K-8 in Spring Hill, will prorate bonus money based on the number of days and hours worked over the school year.
Challenger's staff voted to give out all but 10 percent of its $110,254 for bonuses and the rest for school improvement projects. Among those projects is extra pay for teachers to help with the school's FCAT tutoring on Saturdays, principal Sue Stoops said.
The size of the staff bonuses are based on total days and hours worked during the school year. That means full-time teachers receive the most — about $700 this year — over custodians, cafeteria workers, secretaries and other support staffers.
"We think teachers are the gold standard," Stoops said. But she added: "Honestly, what would we do without the lunch ladies or the custodial crew or the bus drivers? Everybody has a hand in this."
There are teachers at Floyd K-8 in Spring Hill who feel that a scale approach is the best way to handle bonuses with teachers at the top, said Suzanne Jaeger, a first-grade teacher at the school who coordinated the vote on how to spend the award money.
"That's always going to be the case," said Jaeger, who declined to offer her own opinion. "(Teachers) do a lot of extra work and there is a lot of extra pressure on us based on student performance."
In the end, a clear majority of the staff voted to spread about $55,000 of Floyd's bonus money evenly to all staffers. The remaining $22,000 will pay for school improvements including and after-school tutoring program and a new music program for the middle school students.
There was little, if any, grumbling, Jaeger said. "I think everybody took it in stride," she said.
Back at Challenger, custodian Dennis Camacho said he's thankful for the bonus money even if he won't get as much as teachers.
"It's a wonderful thing," said Camacho, a 62-year-old Spring Hill resident. "We don't make that much money, so every little bit helps."
Now Camacho said he has his own decisions to make: Put the money toward his property tax bill or Christmas gifts for his four grandchildren?
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.