TAMPA — It could be the hardest $100 million the Hillsborough County School Board ever spent.
Members were in a festive mood Tuesday, nearly two months after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation picked the district to carry out a seven-year plan to boost teacher effectiveness. But by the end of their first workshop to discuss it, their feet were firmly on the ground.
"This is the largest single education grant in the history of the foundation," said senior Gates program officer Don Shalvey, describing Hillsborough's plan as a national model. "(But) we also think every organization has within it a flaw that could be fatal."
As Shalvey ran through a dozen possible perils in the district's plan— leadership turnover, lack of will, lack of funding, communications problems, state meddling — board members nodded. They're already hearing it.
"We've got some elections coming up, and I can tell you there are going to be some questions about this," said member April Griffin.
Member Jack Lamb said constituents approach him all the time with a simple question: "What are you doing with all that money?"
Concrete changes are coming soon, said chief information officer David Steele. This fall the district plans to roll out a new teacher evaluation system and a corps of about 200 peer evaluators to help rate teachers and mentor new ones.
Every teacher will be placed on a scale — with 40 percent from student test performance and 60 percent from peer and principal evaluations — and paid accordingly. High-performing teachers, as well as those who win tenure, will see a significant pay boost once a new salary scale is adopted in the fall of 2013.
Those changes must still be negotiated with the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. Veteran teachers can opt to stay with their existing pay scale, but there are no limits to the number who can earn merit pay.
"There will be no caps on excellence in our system," said union president Jean Clements.
She said those veterans would still have access to performance bonuses and chances for professional advancement, even if they decide the new salary scale isn't for them.
Voters want to know how the district will pay for the reforms, which require a $102 million match from local or grant funds and at least $30 million annually after the grant runs out, said member Jennifer Faliero.
"This is coming at us very sharply now from people who have come out of the woodwork," she said. "An opportunity exists where people are going to try to blow this wide open and make it very negative."
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the district and board must nip such attacks in the bud.
"The key to us is when people say things you know aren't true, we need to have the opportunity to respond to them," she said.
And the board must not lose its central focus on boosting student learning, said chairwoman Susan Valdes.
"There's still a lot of work to be done, because all of our kids are important," she said.