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Pinellas County schools, teachers union discuss merit pay

The Pinellas County School District and the Pinellas teachers union are about to do something that even a year ago would have been inconceivable: collaborate on plans to award performance pay and differential pay to teachers.

Superintendent Julie Janssen and union executive director Marshall Ogletree confirmed Friday that talks will begin soon. Janssen said she wants to have a plan in place by next fall, if not sooner.

"We have to come up with a way to reward people and to encourage them to work with our most needy students," she said.

There are no details yet about funding or eligibility requirements or potential bonus amounts. But it appears the plan will be limited to a handful of schools — perhaps as few as 10 — that the state has identified as in need of help.

Differential pay is often used to describe pay plans that give teachers extra money for working in high-needs schools, which are often plagued by high teacher turnover. Polls show many teachers like the idea, but unions have been resistant.

Performance pay is based on the notion that better teachers should be paid more money — a reward to them and an incentive to others. But many teachers fear that standardized test scores or principal evaluations can't fairly measure their contributions.

Ogletree said initial discussions will focus on teachers at Gibbs High, but plans that take shape there could become a model for other schools.

He said the state's new "differentiated accountability" system — which requires that districts implement performance pay and differential pay for low-performing schools — is helping to drive the conversation. But he also said the union had other motivations.

"We're trying to break the mold," he said. "We have to work on plans to close achievement gaps, no ifs, ands or buts about it."

Ogletree's comments are a local shocker, given the Pinellas union's past opposition.

Longtime union director Jade Moore, who died in December, once helped the district craft a performance pay plan in response to a mandate from the Republican-led Legislature. But the district set the eligibility bar so high, virtually no teacher could earn the money.

Hard-line positions like Moore's are eroding. And it's no longer conservatives alone who want to reshape how teachers are paid.

President Barack Obama has been steadfast in his support for performance pay. And just last week, the American Federation of Teachers awarded an "innovation grant" to the Broward teachers union in South Florida so it could design a new evaluation system that in part links pay and test scores.

In Hillsborough, performance pay and differential pay plans have been in place for several years.

In Pinellas, Ogletree promised there would be input from teachers on both types of plans because "we have to build buy-in."

Some Gibbs teachers like some of what they hear.

Physics teacher Oliver Bailey said everyone is working harder this year to lift Gibbs from its F-grade status. Teachers in high-needs schools should make more money for doing difficult work, just like professionals in the private sector, he said.

"That absolutely should carry over into the schools," said Bailey, who worked as a quality control engineer at Honeywell before coming to Gibbs eight years ago.

Tenth-grade English teacher Wendy Meller, who joined Gibbs in August, said a little bit of extra money could be a big lift for teachers in tough schools. But she said performance pay can't be based on test scores alone.

If it's not done right, performance pay can hurt morale, said Meller, who once worked in a school that offered performance pay. But a good performance pay plan "would make me smile."

"The harder someone works at a sales job, the more they pound the pavement, the more they get paid," Meller said.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873. Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413.

Pinellas County schools, teachers union discuss merit pay 10/18/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 19, 2009 12:01am]
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