ZEPHYRHILLS — Linda Kahn rose before her colleagues on the Woodland Elementary staff knowing her message wouldn't go down easy.
But after years of watching fights over money the state gives successful schools, Kahn just needed to speak her mind.
"This whole thing from the state to me is screwy," the guidance counselor said. "They take a steak and throw it in to the hungry lions and say, 'Here's your bonus. Fight for it.' … Give it back to the kids. Send a message to the community that we care about our kids here and we're not going to fight for it."
Kahn expected the group to support a separate proposal to divide the $79,772 award as bonuses among 101 people. Money is tight, after all, and Pasco district employees aren't likely to get their annual pay increases based on years of service, much less raises.
Still, she explained later, it was worth the effort after having seen the 10-year-old recognition program turn people against each other year after year.
This debate is playing out in nearly 2,000 Florida schools, as staff members and advisory councils try to beat a Nov. 1 deadline to distribute $147.1-million. In Pasco, 40 schools will share $3-million.
Many schools like to use the money for other purposes, such as buying supplies. Last year, Pasco schools received $3.4-million, giving about 87 percent of it in bonuses, using 11 percent for materials and spending the rest on staffing.
If the staffs and the advisory councils can't agree, the money automatically goes to instructional faculty only.
Sometimes the schools reach easy agreement. But not always.
Rushe Middle in Land O'Lakes has seen both sides of the fence.
"In past years it has always been a push and a shove, many times between parents and teachers and the support staff, about who should get the money and how much should be given," Rushe advisory council chairwoman Amye Cox said.
This year, though, the school relied on a process set up previously to avoid much of the acrimony, principal David Estabrook said. Teachers and advisory council members collaborated on one plan to give most of the $104,033 as bonuses, leaving $5,250 for later use.
The economy mattered, Cox said: "This year, the parents that I spoke with said they felt like the teachers deserved the lion's share of the money because they were not getting raises."
Knowing that money would be tight this year, several groups urged lawmakers to cancel the recognition funds, putting the money instead into general education funding. The hope was that the money would go into base employee pay, rather than into bonuses at select schools.
Pasco's $3-million would have covered about half the amount needed to pay all district employees' "step" increases based on years of service. That pay so far has been frozen.
"It was very shortsighted of the Legislature to continue this program when they looked down the road and saw what the financial situation was," United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb said.
Local lawmakers did not regret the choice, though.
"We shouldn't punish our high-performing teachers and our high-performing schools in tough economic times," said Rep. John Legg, who sits on the House Schools and Learning Council.
Legg's charter school, Dayspring Academy, received $34,340 in recognition funds.
Sen. Mike Fasano, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted there's no guarantee if the state put the money into the general fund it would have gone to salaries.
"I'm a big fan of allowing the dollars to go to each school," Fasano said. "Unless someone can convince me otherwise, I will continue to support that."
Sen. Stephen Wise, Education Appropriations chairman, said he also supported the philosophy of rewarding people who do well. He did not expect that to change.
"I hear it's divisive" in some schools, he added. "I say, 'Well, welcome to the political world.' "
At the very least, the effort to set a spending plan can lead to lengthy conversations.
Centennial Middle School principal Tom Rulison predicted needing perhaps half a day to work through seven proposals submitted to his school recognition fund committee. That group's decision for the $56,131 then will head to the advisory council Oct. 21.
River Ridge Middle avoided three weeks of debating plans by reaching quick consensus to let staff members take a taxed bonus or donate their share of the $120,853 back to the school, untaxed, for supplies that they can recommend.
The staff unanimously supported the idea, and the advisory council backed it afterward.
"They felt that they trusted the staff to put the money toward what they felt was in the best interest of students," principal Jason Joens said.
That level of trust and support for the teachers and support staff has led many schools to use the funds for similar purposes.
Sand Pine Elementary, for instance, gave $700 bonuses across the board, saving just $252 of its $63,252 for supplies.
"Their rationale was basically that because this was a year of no steps or salary increases, that bonuses would be greatly appreciated and highly deserved," principal Ginny Yanson explained.
Denise Belasic, a parent member of Woodland Elementary's advisory council, said she had no problem giving the money directly to staff members because she knows the vast majority "are going to be using it in the classroom anyway."
"Other than the fact that they're being taxed on it, they should have the flexibility," Belasic said.
Kahn, the guidance counselor, said she wished it were so easy. She's seen the looks and heard the comments after someone has proposed using the money for something other than bonuses. And she simply wanted to get away from the acrimony as the school considers three plans.
"It turns people against each other," she observed. "I've been tired of keeping my mouth closed all the years we've done this. It hurts us."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.