BROOKSVILLE — In January, the Hernando School Board reluctantly decided to join the state's effort to garner hundreds of millions of federal education dollars through the Race to the Top grant.
But the local teachers union, concerned about the costs and the lack of flexibility in the grant requirements, declined to sign a memo of understanding between the district and the state.
Only five teachers unions in Florida eventually agreed to sign, and some observers say the lack of buy-in helped torpedo the state's chances for the grant.
Now, Florida is seeking a second round of funding with hopes that a more specific agreement will bring unions on board, and so far it's looking good in Hernando, said Joe Vitalo, president of Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.
At a meeting of union leaders Tuesday evening, no one objected to Vitalo moving ahead with talks with Superintendent Bryan Blavatt.
"We feel more comfortable with Race to the Top round two because some of the significant flaws of round one have been removed," Vitalo said Wednesday.
The grant money would help pay for sweeping changes in how teachers are paid and evaluated, with student learning gains figuring prominently. Unions are engaged in the process to formulate those changes, and the latest memo — tweaked with suggestions by a governor's task force comprised of superintendents, teachers, union reps and district officials — gives local districts a lot more control and flexibility.
But the $2.2 million that Hernando is expected to receive over four years from the Race to the Top grant would likely fall well short of the actual cost of implementing the changes, and so the price tag is still worrisome, Vitalo said.
"I think everyone's under the impression that the economy's going to be better and we're going to have the money to handle this, but what if it doesn't?" Vitalo said. "If it doesn't, we can't afford this stuff."
There is a key change in the new version that helps ease those concerns, according to Vitalo and Eric Williams, the district's grant writer: The grant money would be used first to implement changes at the district's lowest-performing schools, and then the schools that feed into them.
The first memo required the changes to take place immediately throughout the entire district.
The new memo, like the first incarnation, explicitly states that districts must give teachers an opportunity to improve and then follow due process before termination.
But the revised document clarifies how learning gains would be gauged, whether it's through the FCAT, advanced placement exams or other assessments developed. Each district would have some flexibility in how to define student growth.
Williams acknowledged that merit pay and financial incentives to work in low-performing schools will quickly eat up a large portion of the grant money. There are also requirements to beef up technology so students can take assessments on computers, and to create an additional science-based career academy in a high school.
"Once we start divvying that kind of money up, it's going to hurt the Race to the Top budget," he said.
But Williams said his recommendation to the board hasn't changed since January.
"I'm not Nostradamus, but my prediction is that Race to the Top funding is going to support changes in education that will serve as the foundation of the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind," Williams said. "All of these kinds of things are going to be mandates. We might as well get behind it while there's some money behind it."
The memo requires the signatures of the superintendent, the School Board chairman and the union president in each district. Last week, Pinellas became the first large district in the state to garner union support.
The Hernando School Board is slated to consider the memo at its workshop Tuesday afternoon. Vitalo said he and other union officials will meet with Blavatt earlier that day to discuss the agreement.
Blavatt said the application has provisions that are "good for kids" and said he didn't think the strategies would be prohibitively expensive.
"It needs to be fine-tuned, but the advantages for our children and the schools that would qualify are far more important than some of the side issues," he said. "We're going to have the opportunity to be on the cutting edge here."
Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, said last week that the latest memo is "light years ahead" of the first incarnation.
But the cost of the changes is a concern throughout the state, FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said Tuesday. If districts sign on and the state gets the money, local officials will have to band together to press the Legislature to bear in mind the price tag and do its part through the annual education budget, Pudlow said.
"As a group, you go to your legislator or delegation to say, 'This is working out and this isn't, but we're going to need a little more funding to make it go,' " he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.