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Teacher bonus plan advances

The School Board doesn't like it. Teachers don't think very much of it either.

But like it or not, Hernando County is moving full-steam ahead to comply with a state-mandated merit pay plan that would give 25 percent of the district's teachers a 5 percent raise next year, based on their students' performance on standardized tests.

The state has pledged to pay about $1.2-million toward those bonuses if the district submits an acceptable plan by Dec. 31.

If it misses the deadline, Hernando will lose the state money but will still have to pay the bonuses out of pocket.

Earlier this month, board members groused at the state's rushed pace to implement the plan during the current school year, now approaching its mid point.

"The fun thing will be to evaluate teachers retroactively, based on rules you adopt in March," said board member Jim Malcolm.

"I don't think we have any options but to proceed on it," chairman Pat Fagan replied.

For many teachers, the main objection isn't timing but the very notion that standardized tests are a fair way to single out teachers or judge the cumulative, year-by-year effort of educating children.

"I think the individual efforts teachers put in, you really can't separate them from the team efforts that go on," said Mike Pilla, an exceptional-student inclusion teacher at West Hernando Middle School. "Education is such a team process."

He said the state's insistence on pitting teachers against each other for a limited pot of money wasn't helpful, and might even sour teachers on the idea of "mainstreaming" ESE students in their general-education classrooms.

"I think it's destructive to morale and the teaching profession," Pilla said. "I think it's a harmful process."

Under the state's plan, ESE teachers like him and colleague Maureen Finelli - whose students often don't take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test - must use a different test to measure their students' progress. That goes for every teacher whose students aren't currently tested, including those in the arts, languages and vocational education.

"It shouldn't be based on student tests," Finelli said. "A kid has a bad day and doesn't do well on the test - it isn't the teacher's fault."

The state is currently working with the Hillsborough County School Board to develop a "test bank" of assessments for subjects not covered by the FCAT.

Jeff Greves, chairman of the mathematics department at Springstead High School, teaches many 11th- and 12th-graders in Advanced Placement classes.

The state plan means those students might have to take another subject-area test in calculus or geometry so that he might qualify for a bit more money, he said.

Meanwhile, the profession is losing good mathematicians to higher-paying jobs in private industry, Greves said.

"They're throwing us a bone," he added. "The state should be doing something about salaries across the board first."

Colleen Doulk, a science teacher at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, tries not to think about the plan.

"I'm so against it," she said. "I think it's just ludicrous."

Children learn in different ways and benefit from teachers with different styles, Doulk said. By focusing on test results alone, the state risks overlooking superior teachers whose contributions aren't measured by existing tests, she said.

"It's wrong to lump us all into one category," she said. "At least give us better benefits so we can provide health insurance for our families."

The Florida Education Association has filed a lawsuit challenging the state Department of Education's process in rolling out the program. But in the meantime, Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Brian Phillips said his union, once a draft has been approved, will negotiate with the district over changes the plan would mean for the teachers' contract.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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