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Teachers union okays bonuses, despite qualms

After calling it unfair and divisive, the union representing Citrus teachers reluctantly agreed Tuesday to accept a controversial plan that could give bonuses to some of the district's teachers.

"It's not fair to the students. It's not fair to the teachers and it's not fair to the district," said union president Deborah Platt. "The people who thought about (the plan) don't care about fairness. They don't care about the students."

Platt was referring to state lawmakers and education officials who created the Special Teachers Are Rewarded program last spring.

The program pays bonuses to the top 25 percent of teachers in each district based on students' learning gains on a battery of standardized tests, some of which have yet to be developed.

Teachers thumbing their noses at more pay?

It sounds strange, but local educators say it's for good reason.

During Tuesday's two-hour negotiations, teachers raised a host of scenarios that called into question the fairness and logic of the plan.

For example, they noted that teachers with fewer students will have an unfair advantage over those with more students. Teachers with fewer students can spend more time with each one, they said, which could ensure those students will post bigger gains on end-of-the-year tests.

Also, the union wondered how the district would reward teachers who teach more than one subject, including those who may teach three physical education classes and one math course. And what tests will the district use to evaluate the performance of an elementary music teacher whose students don't take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test while others do?

They argued that developing, administering and scoring tests for every student in the district will rob teachers and administrators of countless hours and thousands of dollars that could be better spent.

One teacher said it was "ludicrous" for the district to devote so much time and money to implement a bonus program that state lawmakers have so far only pledged to fund for one year.

Platt added that competition for bonuses would fuel acrimony among teachers.

"You're going to have teachers who are not going to collaborate and share effective teaching techniques with other teachers," she said. "This is not in the best interest of the students."

State lawmakers argue otherwise. They say the plan is a step forward in tying teacher pay to performance. It will give teachers more incentive to help struggling students, supporters say.

In the end, the union said it agreed to sign off on the bonus plan to keep Citrus from losing almost $1.5-million in state lottery funds.

Districts that miss a Dec. 31 deadline to submit a plan to the state will be cut off from lottery funds as well as the pot of money that pays for the bonuses. Citrus would get $814,000 for bonuses.

"They're strong-arming us to implement the STAR program," Platt said.

District officials, working under a tight deadline, admitted the plan is not perfect. But they promised to work out the glitches to make it as fair as possible.

If the state accepts the Citrus plan, the union will then ask teachers to ratify it.

The School Board will have the last word when the plan comes up for approval at the Dec. 12 meeting.

Then the work of implementing the plan begins.

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sptimes.com or 860-7305.

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