Three years ago, the Pinellas County school system crafted a bold plan to improve four middle schools burdened by high teacher turnover and low student achievement: It would offer up to $9,000 a year extra to teachers who boosted student test scores.
Teachers could get even more if they worked as tutors or mentors or participated in certain training.
For the four struggling middle schools — Azalea, Bay Point, John Hopkins and Pinellas Park — the $7.2 million federal grant had the potential to be a game-changer.
Fast forward to today, and Pinellas has paid out only a tiny fraction of the money to teachers or administrators. Two principals and 48 teachers have earned bonuses, for $162,000 total. The district has paid even less for training, tutoring or mentoring.
Much more has been spent on administrative expenses. More than $2.5 million went to district administrator and office staff salaries, software purchases, test development and work by a public relations firm to "brand" the grant for the public.
Far from improved, conditions in the four schools are the same or worse.
"I don't think anyone is going to come to Azalea because of that," principal Connie Kolosey said of the performance bonuses, which were awarded in a way that no one could tell who was getting them. "It's sort of like the lottery."
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With the five-year grant, Pinellas made big promises to improve the four schools.
All were high-poverty, high-minority schools that performed worse than other schools in Florida with similar demographics. District officials wrote in their application to the federal government that it was difficult to get and keep high-quality teachers and administrators. They were forced to hire a lot of new teachers and some teachers who weren't fully certified.
The Teacher Incentive Fund, which provided the grant, envisioned keeping teachers and administrators in tough schools and attracting others.
It would help students by rewarding the "incredibly dedicated teachers who choose to work in challenging school environments," according to the program's communications plan. The four schools would get more high-quality teachers and the number of teachers asking for transfers would decrease.
A key component of the grant included building a performance-based system that could be used more broadly in the school system.
By now, $1.2 million was to have been paid out to teachers and administrators at the schools. Another $756,000 was to be paid in the 2013-14 school year. Most of the money for years four and five would come from the district.
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Pinellas has yet to deliver on most of those promises, and conditions in the schools have not changed much.
Bonuses have been paid out once. All together, teachers have received a total of $32,950 for taking on mentoring or tutoring duties. Few teachers signed up for training opportunities.
Bruce Proud, executive director of the teachers union, said teachers weren't interested in some of the activities that they could be paid for, such as writing test questions, and it wasn't clear what the purpose was, he said.
"There was no plan for what happens to these if you did it," he said.
Teachers still are trying to get out of the schools, with more than 40 percent asking for a transfer last year. Test scores still are low. Azalea Middle, an F school, and Pinellas Park Middle, a D school, are going through state-mandated restructuring for chronic low student achievement.
Reading scores at the two schools aren't much lower than at D-rated John Hopkins Middle, where only 36 percent of students were on grade level or better, or C-rated Bay Point Middle, where 43 percent of students earned proficient scores.
At Azalea Middle, Kolosey said confusion over new "value-added models" of evaluation made it unclear which teachers would get performance bonuses.
It felt "sort of arbitrary" and "out of our control," she said.
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From the start, the grant seemed tilted in favor of expenses rather than putting money in teachers' hands. In the original budget, before anyone spent a dime, more than half of the $7.2 million grant was earmarked for administrative costs. District officials budgeted $1.5 million for software, $1.3 million to pay staffers to administer the grant, and more than $200,000 for an outside public relations firm for "branding."
Only $1.9 million was intended to reward teachers and administrators in the four schools.
Melanie Marquez Parra, a district spokeswoman, said many of those purchases, such as software and test development, could be used by the district after the grant expires.
But, in many ways, the grant stagnated, and the original plan was revised.
The original top award of $9,000 was lowered to $5,000 during salary negotiations with the teachers union, according to the district. Teachers also can get smaller awards of $3,000 and $1,000.
Pinellas cut its promise for matching funds to $330,360 — the bare minimum — down from nearly $2 million.
A communications plan, developed by the public relations firm, was put on hold in mid 2011 as the School District "worked out details of the program." Communications efforts began again in the spring of 2012.
A revised budget, submitted this month, pushes most payouts for performance, training and tutoring into future years.
Superintendent Mike Grego, who has been with the district for one year, said aspects of the grant were likely disrupted by internal change in the district — Pinellas won the grant three years and three superintendents ago — and rapid changes to state-mandated teacher evaluations and merit pay.
"You had all of these issues kind of coming together," he said.
Similar efforts already are in place in some of the same schools for recruitment and retention bonuses that aren't based on performance. This pot of money won't be wasted, Grego said.
"Obviously, this is going to grow."
Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.