If it weren't for the students at four struggling middle schools, the Pinellas school district's bumbling of a $7.2 million federal grant would be just more grist for the all-too-frequent complaint of inefficient, ineffective government. But the failure to use the money to attract and retain quality teachers at the four schools just as other revenue was declining — and students weren't learning — is a failure of leadership from middle managers on up. This debacle didn't begin on superintendent Mike Grego's watch, but it's now his job to salvage what he can of the program and prevent such mismanagement from happening again.
Grego is the third superintendent at the district since 2010, when Pinellas won the Teacher Incentive Fund grant to improve the quality of instruction at Azalea, Bay Point, John Hopkins and Pinellas Park middle schools. As the Tampa Bay Times' Cara Fitzpatrick reported, in its grant application for the federal dollars, Pinellas wrote that educators would receive up to $9,000 a year in additional compensation for boosting student test scores. They could qualify for even more if they worked as tutors, mentors or participated in various training programs.
But after three years, only $195,000 of the anticipated $1.2 million has flowed into educators' pockets — and only $162,000 of that has been based on student performance. The maximum stipend has fallen to $5,000. Pinellas has even retreated from its original promise to provide nearly $2 million in additional money over the grant's five years and cut it to the bare minimum of $330,360.
Meanwhile, teachers are still fleeing the four middle schools. Some 40 percent left last year, and students still aren't learning as much as they should. Azalea and Pinellas Park, F- and D-rated schools, respectively, are under state-required restructuring for chronic low student achievement. John Hopkins is a D-rated school; Bay Point is C-rated.
From the outset, the lion's share of the grant money was never targeted for enhancing teacher pay but to underwrite a new performance-based compensation system for the district that would be tested at these four schools. And it makes sense that the district, heeding Tallahassee's push to implement merit-based teacher pay, went looking for outside resources for help.
But three years and a total of $2.7 million later, it's not clear what has been gained. It is clear who continues to lose: students who aren't learning as much as they should in the classroom, and teachers who should have gotten far more of the money. The district needs to explain how it will get this grant back on track and be a better steward of the taxpayers' money. Grego's job is to ensure it happens.