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Race to the Top grant money gets Pasco district, union talking

LAND O'LAKES — In the first round of President Barack Obama's Race to the Top education grant competition, the United School Employees of Pasco was one of the first teachers associations in Florida to reject participation.

Even after state leaders adjusted the application to gain more teacher support, the USEP held firm in its opposition.

Now that Florida has won $700 million in the initiative, and Pasco schools stand to get around $8 million over four years, the USEP has agreed to reconsider its stance.

That's not to say the association leadership has agreed to negotiate any part of the grant requirements, which include such hot-button items as tying teacher evaluations and salary more closely to student test results. But after meeting with key members of superintendent Heather Fiorentino's administration Tuesday, USEP president Lynne Webb did consent to more conversations about whether the district and union can find any common ground on which they could accept the money.

"What I would call this meeting more than anything was comparing information to see if we are talking from the same page," Webb said. "There was no taking of positions."

She said she needs to see what the district is already doing to meet current state laws relating to school improvement and accountability, and to determine whether those limited efforts fit with the state's Race to the Top plan. Webb has said in the past that some of the reform proposals might work at test sites to learn more about them before rolling them out districtwide.

The USEP recently agreed to a performance pay plan for teachers in the district's virtual school, for instance.

"We need to know, would it be advantageous with Race to the Top to garner some of those dollars to achieve those goals starting with some pilot schools," Webb said.

Kevin Shibley, the district's director of employee relations, made no secret of the administration's desire to capitalize on Race to the Top money. He said taking time to assess the application process, the state's requirements and the district's progress in meeting existing laws should help both sides come to a good decision.

He noted that the state Department of Education had issued advice on the grant only a few hours before the local meeting Tuesday, and that no one had time to review it in advance.

"We definitely think there are some positive things there and some room to come up with a plan," Shibley said.

But time is short, he added.

The federal government has set a 90-day deadline for states to submit all local Race to the Top plans for approval. That gives districts closer to 50 days to turn proposals over to the state, so there's time for revisions. Still, the state would give districts more time later to work out all the specific details of these overarching goals, rather than requiring everything to be done in a year, a controversial requirement of the first plan that was rejected.

"The time lines we have to work with are a little more workable with regard to implementation," Shibley said.

School Board vice chairwoman Joanne Hurley said she hopes the USEP will come around to supporting Pasco's participation in Race to the Top.

"When the board was to vote on the quarter-mill tax, they were very vocal that we take that money," Hurley said. "It doesn't make sense that they would turn around and not support taking another pot of money."

Representatives from the teachers and administration are scheduled to meet again Sept. 9 to continue the conversation.

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.

Race to the Top grant money gets Pasco district, union talking 08/31/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 31, 2010 10:43pm]
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