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Not a Florida classroom teacher? No Best and Brightest for you.

An administrative judge reiterates the bonuses are for current classroom teachers only.
As a literacy coach, Lauren Pantoja, left, would not be eligible for a state Best and Brightest bonus — regardless of her performance evaluation rating. [GAIL DIEDERICH | Special to the Times]
Published Mar. 18
Updated Mar. 18

A state administrative judge on Monday made clear the point that several Florida school districts have been emphasizing over the past few weeks — Best and Brightest bonuses are for K-12 classroom teachers only.

Teachers without classroom assignments are not eligible for the added money, no matter their evaluation rating, no matter their hard work with students. That’s what state law requires.

“Nothing in the language of subsection (3)(c) indicates that ‘classroom teacher’ should be read as ‘former classroom teacher’ or otherwise in the past tense,” administrative law judge Lawrence P. Stevenson wrote in a recommended order to a Clay County school district dispute. “The plain language of subsection (3)(c) requires that an applicant for a $1,200 scholarship be a classroom teacher and have received an evaluation of 'highly effective’ in the most recent preceding school year.”

The issue stemmed from a handful of Clay teachers who claimed they were due bonuses for their “highly effective” evaluations from 2016-17. The district did not award the money, saying the teachers were no longer in the classroom in 2017-18, when the bonuses were to be paid.

They were, instead, special education support facilitators who worked with students but did not have specific daily K-12 classroom assignments, the district maintained.

It’s a position similar to one that many districts have made clear recently, as the date to distribute the latest round of Best and Brightest funds approaches.

The Okaloosa County school district, for instance, upset some educators by determining that prekindergarten teachers were not able to get the bonus because the law applies to K-12 teachers, not pre-k. The Pasco County school district has faced similar disappointment, brinking on anger, from school counselors, career advisors, pre-k teachers and others.

The Clay County teachers filed a complaint with the state, alleging their school district misapplied the law.

In his review, Stevenson found the statute to be “no model of clarity.” He had to parse through the use of words such as “notwithstanding,” and determine what it applied to. He contrasted the use of present and past tense to infer meanings.

But in the end, he contended the district’s stance, that the subset of bonuses based solely on evaluations applied only to current classroom teachers, was more convincing.

“On each December 1, a school district must submit to the Department the number of eligible classroom teachers who qualify for the scholarship, the name and identifying number of each school to which an eligible classroom teacher is assigned, and the name of the principal of the eligible classroom teacher’s school,” Stevenson wrote. “None of these items references previous years and all of them carry the implication that an ‘eligible classroom teacher’ is one who is teaching in the classroom on December 1 of the current school year.”

That position didn’t hurt all of the Clay teachers seeking redress. After looking at the relevant paperwork, Stevenson found two of them actually had been classroom teachers in 2017-18, and directed the district to show them the money.

Teachers are supposed to get their current year Best and Brightest awards by April 1. Districts were to submit their final budget applications to the state by March 12, with the money to be distributed soon after.

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