Friday, December 15, 2017
Education

Pasco's Ridgewood High cut former staff out of $84,000 bonus for raising grade

NEW PORT RICHEY— As an intensive reading teacher, Ed White worked during the 2010-11 school year to push Ridgewood High School's state grade from a C to a B. The school's reading "readiness rate" rose from 58 percent to 70 percent.

Ridgewood got nearly $84,000 in incentives for its improvement. When the school distributed the funds this spring, though, White and a handful of his colleagues got nothing.

They had left the school over the summer — in his case involuntarily — and their co-workers who remained at Ridgewood decided not to include them in the windfall of $883 per employee. White compared the situation to being on the Super Bowl championship team one year, getting traded in the off season and then being denied a Super Bowl ring or bonus.

"It's totally wrong," he said. "If they are allowed to do it under the law, the law needs to be changed."

White contacted outgoing state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who's now seeking election to the Florida House. Fasano agreed that the law, which gives schools only general direction on how to spend recognition funds, might need revisiting.

"Something needs to be done," Fasano said. "What kind of an incentive is that to teachers? … The bottom line is, they should benefit if the school is going to receive those bonus dollars."

The fix, he suggested, could be relatively simple: If schools use recognition funds for bonuses, they simply would have to check their payrolls to see who worked at the school when the improvements were made. "There's no reason why those dollars can't follow that teacher," Fasano said.

Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he would not want to micromanage the funds. But the issue is worth a closer look, Weatherford said.

"We could always go back and make sure people who contributed at least have a voice," he said. "Reform is never finished. We should always be re-evaluating the way we reward our teachers."

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-New Port Richey, agreed that more investigation is needed.

"It's disappointing to me that the money wouldn't go to people who were responsible for getting the recognition," said Corcoran, who's also in line to become House speaker in a few years. "That doesn't make any sense at all."

It's permissible under the law, though. At least four other Pasco schools specified in their recognition plans that only returning staff members would get bonuses.

Most, however, ensured that all their 2010-11 staff (within parameters dealing with time served) would share the wealth, regardless of where they landed this academic year.

"Every year we get certain complaints, and they're very similar in nature. It has to do with what people see as an unfair distribution," said Lynne Webb, United School Employees of Pasco president. "This is, quite frankly, why unions as a whole oppose this system. … It creates inherent feelings of rejection and resentment."

The school recognition bonuses are not included in contract negotiations.

Reading teacher Terrill Winton, who was involuntarily transferred from Ridgewood to Bayonet Point along with White, said she wasn't surprised by Ridgewood's decision to exclude teachers who no longer taught at the school. That's what they did the year before, too.

She opposed and criticized the move when she benefited from it. And she didn't change her view when on the losing end.

"We're a community, and we all worked together. We all busted our tails to accomplish that," Winton said. "And it's like the ones that were pushed out of the school because of money or because enrollment was going down … we were forgotten about."

English teacher Julie Smith left Ridgewood after 15 years during the summer to take a job at Sunlake High, closer to her home. She called the Ridgewood staff's decision to keep the bonuses for only returning employees "self-serving and selfish."

"I vehemently believe everyone deserves it who was there," said Smith, who was the school's USEP teacher representative, a role she now holds at Sunlake. Particularly for the teachers who were forced out of Ridgewood, "it was a slap in the face to them. It said to them nothing they had done was appreciated."

Smith and Winton shared the concern that the bonuses as created in law are divisive, and hurt more as school employees are working under tougher standards without raises while also paying more for their pensions and benefits.

"For our colleagues to decline giving us a bonus that we deserve is just disheartening," Winton said. "What is the education system coming to if we're not going to include our colleagues in the things they deserve?"

Lawmakers recently increased the amount of money that will go toward school recognition funds for the next fiscal year, from $70 per student to $100 per student. The awards will be made after schools get their FCAT results. The FCAT begins in two weeks.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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