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Pasco School Board member questions whether federal grant is worth the cost

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County School Board member Steve Luikart has growing doubts about whether the school district should participate in the federal Race to the Top initiative.

Yes, he acknowledged, the district would receive $8.5 million over four years to help implement many big changes, such as new performance-based teacher evaluations and increased science and math courses.

But Luikart, reminiscent of Gov. Rick Scott's rejection of high-speed rail funding, wondered whether taking the federal money is worth agreeing to all the strings and hidden costs that come with it.

Maybe the district can go it alone, he suggested, meeting the requirements without becoming even more beholden to the feds.

"I would like to have a discussion that says, 'What are the costs going to be to the district over the next three or four years?' " said Luikart, a retired assistant principal who joined the board after it agreed to Race to the Top.

He noted that the expenses associated with developing tests to measure teachers' academic performance could far outstrip the grant, of which the district already has received $1.5 million.

"I would like to relook at that," Luikart said.

Lynne Webb, president of the district's employee union, might end up his biggest ally. If the district hopes to tap into the full amount of its grant, it still needs Webb's signature on an agreement that must go to Tallahassee by the end of June.

So far, she's been reluctant to accept the terms.

"I have said all along I'm not sure the grant is worth it," Webb said. "Because what we are required to do under the grant costs more than what the grant provides."

Even so, she continued, her view hinges upon the Florida Legislature. Lawmakers are considering bills that would put much of the state's Race to the Top plan into law, essentially requiring all school districts — even those that are not part of the federally funded program — to comply with the effort.

"If the Legislature's requirements are completely in line with Race to the Top, I'm not sure what good it does not taking the Race to the Top funds," Webb said. "I'd hate to lose that money. I'm pragmatic that way."

School Board vice chairman Allen Altman, who as chairman in 2010 signed the participation agreement, said he voted to accept the grant under the assumption that the district will be forced to do all the things the grant application outlines. He said he's withholding final judgment until the end of session, too.

"I'd like to see how it shakes out before we make that decision," Altman said.

Current board chairwoman Joanne Hurley acknowledged Luikart's view that implementing Race to the Top ideas will cost the district more than it gets with the grant. She did not waver, though, in her commitment to taking the money and spending it on the development of evaluations, course assessments and so forth.

After attending several conferences on the topics, she's convinced the federal and state governments will be tying most future education funding to the terms being promulgated through Race to the Top.

"There are expectations that go with the money," Hurley said. "If we do not make our best effort ... in the future we will be required to do those things without the money."

Board member Cynthia Armstrong also figured that the district would have to incur major expenses to comply with all the new accountability standards moving through the Legislature. Taking the federal grant, she said, would help "ease the unfunded mandate."

Deadlines to determine final participation have been pushed back to June. Board and USEP leaders said they expect to have many more conversations about the subject before making an ultimate decision.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Pasco School Board member questions whether federal grant is worth the cost 03/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2011 8:27pm]
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