LARGO — After weeks of scrutiny, Pinellas County School Board members Tuesday unanimously renewed $1.6 million in teacher training contracts with the University of Florida.
The vote marked a significant win for superintendent Julie Janssen, who has promoted the program as a centerpiece of her plan for improving teaching in the 103,000-student district, despite nagging questions about its scope and cost.
"My main concern was the amount of money benefiting such a small number of teachers," said board member Janet Clark. "I've moved past that. … We're rebuilding professional development and I think it's about time."
Twenty supporters, most of them teachers, pleaded with the board to keep the partnership with UF's Lastinger Center for Learning — if not for the teachers, then for the students they serve in high-poverty schools.
"Lastinger inspires teachers to further greatness," said Vanessa Barkman, a science teacher at Pinellas Park Middle who got involved with the program this summer. "My kids will benefit because I've grown."
Four people spoke opposing it.
Afterward, Janssen said teachers were better able to describe the program's strengths and impact. "I was happy that (board members) were willing to listen to the teachers," she said. "We had to let them hear it firsthand."
Started three years ago, the partnership between Pinellas County and UF has paid for 34 teachers in struggling schools to complete their master's degrees. Another 124 are in the pipeline. So far, the district has spent $3.7 million on the program, using federal and state money designated for teacher training in high-poverty schools. Participants sign an agreement to continue teaching in a struggling school for at least five years.
Jim Martin, a former Pinellas County teacher, who jokingly said he's "been black for 66 years," praised Lastinger for its promise of raising achievement for African-American students.
He added: "I believe that Julie Janssen represents the best hope that children of color have today in Pinellas County."
Janssen has faced mounting criticism over her leadership, including her decisions affecting the professional development. The board will discuss her performance in a workshop Aug. 23.
The board members who were concerned about the Lastinger partnership said Tuesday they've learned more about it. Chief among their issues has been a lack of data showing its impact on student learning. They also worry whether, in a district of 8,000 teachers, it is reaching enough people.
Board member Terry Krassner, a vocal critic, said that she recognized she could get some heat for her vote: "I might be known as a flip-flopper today, I don't know."
But she said she felt ultimately that without Lastinger, the district had very little in the way of a plan.
Clark and Linda Lerner both said they'd like to see some tweaks. Clark said she would support putting some teeth in to the teacher's agreement to continue working in a high-poverty school in exchange for the master's degree. Lerner unsuccessfully moved for the board to approve the contracts on the condition that in 2012-13 they work with Lastinger to involve more teachers.
In the end, board member Robin Wikle said, the scrutiny prompted Janssen's team to develop a plan to evaluate the program. "I do think it's an example of the board getting into the weeds a little bit," Wikle said. "However, we're charged with a budget that caused us to get into the weeds."
The district's overall allocation for professional development is $26 million. School officials are still trying to figure out exactly how to cut $55 million from the district's 2011-12 proposed budget.