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Pinellas schools leery of state mandates to get federal Race to the Top funds

Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion grant program at the heart of President Barack Obama's vision for school reform. It could funnel up to $700 million to Florida. Over four years, Pinellas could get $21 million.

So what's not to like?

It all depends on what you think of all the strings that are attached.

The Pinellas County School Board took a small step last week toward joining a state effort to get the money, but not without a slew of reservations — and a strong dissent from board chairwoman Janet Clark.

"I'm at the point where I want to tell them, 'I'm not interested,' " Clark said Friday. "It would take an awful lot to convince me that this is the best thing for our kids, our staff, our schools."

At issue is Florida's grant application, which would push participating districts to overhaul a list of practices — from teacher merit pay to turning around struggling schools — in a way the state deems best. For example, it commits districts to crafting new teacher evaluations that are based mostly on student test scores.

If a district doesn't think that's the best approach — sorry — no money.

"Is the money worth them bossing us around?" board member Linda Lerner said at a workshop Wednesday.

"They already are," replied superintendent Julie Janssen.

After a lengthy discussion, the board gave Janssen the okay to sign a letter of intent for the district to participate. But the district can still change its mind. The next step is for Janssen, Clark and Pinellas teachers union president Kim Black to sign a memorandum of understanding with the state by Jan. 12. The board will discuss the issue again on Jan. 7.

Florida is considered a leading contender for the money because its approach to school reform, begun under former Gov. Jeb Bush, meshes well with Obama's. But its odds took a hit last week when the state's teacher union discouraged local unions from signing. The application is believed to need union backing to win.

"I really hope that we can quickly get everybody back to the table," said Jim Warford, who heads the Florida Association of School Administrators. "We simply cannot afford to lose $700 million."

The Pinellas union has not taken a position yet. But executive director Marshall Ogletree said the application is too prescriptive on how districts and unions should handle things like performance pay and teacher evaluations. He also questioned its reach and deadlines.

"It's just so much, so fast, and so different," he said.

With Race to the Top in mind, Ogletree said the union wanted to work on a project that focused on four struggling high schools — Gibbs, Lakewood, Boca Ciega and Dixie Hollins — and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them. It wanted to try performance pay, differential pay and longer school days — all policies listed in the state's application — but apply them to those schools alone.

"I also think that's what the district wanted to do," he said. "But unfortunately, you have to build a districtwide plan" to meet the state's application terms and there's not enough money to do that.

School Board members raised concerns, too.

Why is this being rushed? Which pieces will the state pay for, and which will be left up to districts? What if the state changes the rules after districts sign on?

"I just don't have a total trust factor," said board member Carol Cook.

"We are engaging in a level of trust and participation with the state that is perhaps unprecedented," said board attorney Jim Robinson.

Janssen said she was more optimistic that the state would let districts follow through on agreed-to plans.

She also said many of the changes required by the state are already in place or in motion because of the state's "differentiated accountability" system, which quietly became law last summer.

Board member Peggy O'Shea said she hated to see more state and federal mandates imposed on the district.

But she added, "If money is coming out of the federal government, I want Florida to get what it can. And if it's coming to Florida, I want Pinellas to get what it can."

Clark took a different view: "They're playing hardball," she said. "And it's time we play hardball back."

Contact Ron Matus at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

"They're playing hardball. And it's time we play hardball back."

School Board Chairwoman Janet Clark

"Is the money worth them bossing us around?"

Board member Linda Lerner

"We simply cannot afford to lose $700 million."

Jim Warford, head of the Florida Association of School Administrators

"It's just so much, so fast, and so different."

Marshall Ogletree, executive director, Pinellas teacher's union

"I just don't have a total trust factor."

Board member Carol Cook

"If money is coming out of the federal government, I want Florida to get what it can. And if it's coming to Florida, I want Pinellas to get what it can."

Board member Peggy O'Shea

Pinellas schools leery of state mandates to get federal Race to the Top funds 12/19/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 19, 2009 3:30am]

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