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Hernando school district joins Race to the Top funding program

BROOKSVILLE — The race is on for millions of federal education dollars, and count Hernando in.

The school district was among the first few in Florida to agree this week to participate in the state's effort to garner as much as $700 million through the federal government's Race to the Top program meant to reward innovation in education.

The School Board voted 3‑1 on Thursday to send a letter of intent to the state, a move that came with some trepidation and griping about the timetable.

State education officials sent out material, including the requirements for districts to participate, Wednesday night. The deadline to submit the letter of intent is Dec. 18, with a memo of understanding due Jan. 12.

Anticipating the small window, Hernando school officials put the item on a special meeting agenda for Thursday, the last time the board is scheduled to meet before both of those deadlines.

But board members hesitated to commit after such little time to review language that is yet to be finalized.

"They're asking us to make decisions when all the information isn't out yet, and frankly I don't trust the federal government," board member John Sweeney said.

Eric Williams, the district's grant writer, had a slide presentation ready to go Thursday. He all but recommended the board move forward.

Hernando's share, if the state wins $700 million, could be as much as $8 million over the next four years, Williams said. Since Florida's strategies to land the grant include so many requirements that are already in the state's new accountability model — and others that will likely be required at some point — it makes sense to sign up for the chance to score dollars to make those things happen, he said.

"We have the opportunity to have a funded mandate rather than an unfunded mandate," Williams said. "We can opt out from participating in this, but eventually we're going to be required to do these things later."

That's the same sentiment that superintendents in districts including Pasco and Hillsborough have used to justify participation.

Hernando has started implementing some of the best practices, interim superintendent Sonya Jackson told the board.

"A lot of the things they are asking us to do we are already doing in this district," she said.

The local teacher union, which also has to sign off on the memo, generally agrees, Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Joe Vitalo told the board.

Among the strategies are controversial items such as having FCAT results count for up to half of teacher pay and creating a pay scale that doles out raises based on evaluations.

If Florida gets the money, participating districts and teachers unions have 90 days to come to an agreement on the details. If a deal isn't reached, the district is out.

The union will be taking a hard look at those issues and won't agree to anything that isn't fair to teachers, Vitalo said. That, in turn, protects the district, he said.

"We're the safeguard," Vitalo said.

Board chairman Pat Fagan said it eased his mind that teachers will have an equal say.

"We need every dime we can possibly get," Fagan said. "If they don't feel comfortable with it, I'm sure without a doubt in my mind they won't sign off on it."

Sweeney, the lone dissenter, worried that school boards, tempted by cash, could be ceding too much power to bureaucrats.

"When the tentacles latch on to you, you're a slave to what they want you to do," he said. "I don't want to give up local control based on an unknown. It's a pattern. They hold the money bag and it looks attractive.

"It comes to a point where enough is enough, and I'm about at that point."

The state sees the grant application as "a good faith commitment" to improve education in Florida, said Tom Butler, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

"We are seeing success here, and we want to make sure we don't derail that and can build upon it," Butler said.

Williams, the grant writer, acknowledged it won't be easy.

"Ultimately, even though it has potential to help a lot of programs and services we provide here in Hernando County," he said, "I think people are going to have to be willing to do the work that's part of that."

Information from Times files was used in this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando school district joins Race to the Top funding program 12/11/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 11, 2009 8:26pm]
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