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Pasco schools get first chunk of Race to the Top funding without union support

LAND O'LAKES — Leaders of the United School Employees of Pasco have refused for months to negotiate with the School Board over reforms mandated in the Race to the Top initiative.

That hasn't stopped the board from pursuing an $8.5 million share of the federal grant, or the Florida Department of Education from handing a piece of its $700 million award to the district — despite a state requirement that teacher union presidents sign a participation agreement as part of their district's proposal to claim the cash.

The department announced Tuesday that Pasco County schools would receive $1.5 million from the fund this week, one of just 11 districts in the state to gain early access to the money. Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said the money would be used to help ready high schools for computerized FCAT and end-of-course testing, as well as to prepare for some of the other goals in the state Race to the Top plans.

Those initiatives include such hot-button issues as performance-based pay for teachers, and evaluations based in part upon student test results.

USEP president Lynne Webb has repeatedly said she did not see many benefits in acquiescing to the Race to the Top program, suggesting that the state plan would erode teacher employment rights that had been hard won over decades.

The absence of her signature on the district's application for funds did not dissuade the Department of Education, though.

Department spokesman Tom Butler said districts could get a partial payout from the grant with only their superintendent's signature. The hope, he said, was that as districts begin to put pieces in place, union officials would see the effort is not so invasive and they might join.

Without seed money, the reform push might not even get started, he said.

"They've done everything to be eligible for this grant up to this point. Receiving these funds could help in the process," Butler said Tuesday. "We don't want to be in a position of prejudging the outcome of negotiations in the district."

Florida surprisingly lost out in the first round of Race to the Top grant awards. Many observers suggested that the lack of union support — just five unions signed agreements to participate in the first application — doomed what otherwise was seen as a slam-dunk effort to lead the Obama administration's educational accountability push.

The state worked to prove it had union support for its proposals in order to clinch funding in the second round.

The USEP withheld its support in the first go-round and has held fast to its position since. The fact that current contract negotiations have stalled over basic pay matters only made the more edgy Race to the Top proposals less attractive, Webb has said.

Fiorentino said she hoped that the union would join the effort at some point, so the district can get the full amount of federal funding it is eligible for.

"I think we need to be working together to find solutions instead of just turning money away," she said.

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 schools get first chunk of Race to the Top funding without union support 01/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 8:01pm]
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