Pasco joins the hunt for Race to the Top school grant

LAND O'LAKES — Count the Pasco County School Board in the hunt for federal Race to the Top funds.

But don't include the local teachers union just yet.

Just as with Round 1 of Race to the Top, the Pasco board unanimously agreed Tuesday to participate in the state's plan for federal school reform.

Despite state efforts to win more teacher support for its plan, though, United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb declined Tuesday to sign papers indicating her organization's full backing.

She continued to harbor concerns that the agreement could open teachers to having contract terms — such as tying their evaluations to students' test scores — imposed without their consent.

Normally, the district and the union discuss contract items at the negotiating table, and if they reach an impasse, the School Board can forcibly impose the district's terms.

In this case, Webb asked the School Board to waive its right to impose terms that originated from Race to the Top.

The board did not consider her request.

"Without that, the union is not particularly comfortable in signing the state memorandum of understanding," Webb said.

She and superintendent Heather Fiorentino pledged to continue working together to find room for compromise in the event that Florida wins some of the remaining federal funds.

"More important than the signatures on a piece of paper is that we have open lines of communication as we continue to work through this process," Fiorentino said.

Florida can request up to $700 million in this second round of the grant. It's not clear how much Pasco County schools would receive if the money comes.

Florida was considered a shoo-in for the first round of the program by many observers. But it fell short in March, finishing fourth in point total while only the top two — Tennessee and Delaware — got the funds.

U.S. Department of Education officials would not comment on the applications, but released the review documents. That left participants guessing at why the state did not prevail.

Some suggested that Florida did not have strong enough laws to implement the reforms it proposed to put in place. Some legislators pushed for Senate Bill 6, a measure that would have changed the way teachers are evaluated, contracted, paid and promoted.

Amid teachers' strong objections to the bill, Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it. He then called for a task force to create an application that involved teachers and addressed some of their major concerns.

Crist and the teachers suggested that the lack of teacher buy-in for Florida's plan doomed its Race to the Top aspirations in the first round.

What emerged from the task force was the new agreement that the Pasco School Board considered Tuesday morning.

Board members said they did not want to take up the USEP's side agreement — which is similar to one signed in Hernando, Duval and Lee districts, among others — because it's not their grant application to begin with.

"It's their football," board member Frank Parker said of the state. "We play the game their way or they take the football and go home."

He lamented the continuing shift of control of schools away from local districts, but acknowledged that the only extra funds so far are coming from the feds through the state.

Board member Kathryn Starkey, meanwhile, noted that the trend has been that the state will move toward changing the rules of school accountability regardless of local agreement.

"We can do it with the money or without the money," she said, adding that if the red tape of Race to the Top appears too onerous, "we can always back out later."

Webb stressed her willingness to keep looking for ways for the union to collaborate on the potential changes.

"I don't believe not having USEP's signature precludes the district from receiving funds if the state gets the grant," she said.

The U.S. Department of Education is scheduled to announce finalists for this grant in late July. The winners are to be announced by early September.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco joins the hunt for Race to the Top school grant 05/25/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 8:06pm]

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