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Gates partnership leaves Hillsborough schools shouldering millions more than expected

Microsoft founder Bill Gates observes Jefferson High School students when Gates and his wife Melinda visited as part of their foundation’s education reform effort. The foundation has spent $20 million less than expected.
Published Sep. 22, 2015

TAMPA

A seven-year effort to put better teachers in Hillsborough County schools is costing the system millions of dollars more than officials projected. And the district's partner in the project, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is spending $20 million less than expected. The numbers, found in recent reports, differ significantly from what was commonly understood about the high-profile partnership, known as Empowering Effective Teachers. The district was to raise $102 million for its part, much of it by aggressively pursuing grants from local corporations and other entities. Gates was to kick in $100 million, for a total of $202 million. But as the project stands in its final year, the district's contribution will total $124 million in money and labor, while the Gates organization is paying only $80 million, the reports state. What's more, the district has put the total cost of the program, so far, at $271 million, which includes costs related to the effort. The numbers likely will be part of a detailed discussion that begins today on how to address the district's dwindling reserves and the resulting budget crisis that has bond-rating companies raising questions about school system finances.

School Board chairwoman Susan Valdes said she has long harbored doubts about escalating costs for the Gates-funded program, which launched in 2009 with great fanfare and put Hillsborough on the map nationally as an innovative district.

"That was my biggest fear, as excited as I was," she said Monday. "I am looking forward to tomorrow's workshop like there's no tomorrow."

Anna Brown, who manages the Gates grant for the district, cautioned against thinking the program is too costly, or that it can be dismantled now that one of its primary features, performance pay, is state law.

She said the extra $69 million in total expenses includes activities outside the scope of Empowering Effective Teachers, but related to it — such as a principal training program that uses funds from the Wallace Foundation, a New York-based philanthropic group focused on education.

Similarly, the $124 million listed in reports as "district reallocation" includes time by workers such as programmers, test designers and personnel staff who would be on the job anyway. "Some of it's an in-kind effort," Brown said. It's listed, in part, to show that the district isn't overly reliant on Gates for support.

But records indicate the relationship between Gates and the district has had some bumps.

Late in the process, the foundation rejected several of the district's funding requests for Empowering Effective Teachers, which involves evaluating teachers using specially trained peers and bumping their pay with the idea that it would boost student performance.

"Each of the proposals were robustly outlined and presented," a district report said.

But Gates officials responded by pointing to language in the original agreement saying the foundation had promised "up to" $100 million, not necessarily the whole amount, according to the report.

The district picked up the unpaid costs.

Much of the disagreement amounted to a change in Gates' philosophy, Brown said. "After a few years of research," she said, "they believed there was not enough of a connection between performance bonuses and greater student achievement."

Brown said because the district has always rewarded teachers for performance, it was not hard to find the extra money.

Gates spokeswoman Mary Beth Lambert said that while the decision on bonus pay is final, the two sides could agree on another funding opportunity later in the year. "It's an ongoing conversation," she said. "The door is still open."

District leaders calculated in August that Empowering Effective Teachers' new pay plan carried a net cost of $65 million to the school system this year alone. The teachers' union rejected that conclusion, saying there would be raises and bonuses with or without the pay plan.

Brown and Carol Kurdell, the School Board's liaison to the Gates effort, pointed out that after six years of work and changes in state law, it's virtually impossible to roll back the clock on the program.

"It's our way of work," Kurdell said. "There's no way to walk away from it. It is now a part of our evaluation system, which is the state law."

Enacted a year after Hillsborough launched its project, Senate Bill 736 in the Florida Legislature phased out teacher tenure and tied pay to supervisor evaluations and student test scores.

Hillsborough was given some leeway because the Gates plan was already under way. Unlike the state program, Hillsborough's plan has a third component of peer observations. And it's the most controversial part, as some teachers come to resent the observers.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins has suggested reducing the number of the evaluators for teachers who have proven they are proficient. Brown said such an adjustment would happen anyway as the grant winds down.

"We are at a natural place to stop and take a look," she said.

And last week, a mass email went out, saying information sessions for prospective evaluators and mentors have been postponed. Brown said managers want to wait until more decisions are made before they recruit more participants.

Since 2009, key components of the Gates program have changed.

The original proposal and a 2010 timeline called for the district to fire 5 percent of its teachers each year for poor performance. That would amount to more than 700 teachers. The thinking was they would be replaced by teachers who earned entry level wages, freeing up money to pay the bonuses for those at the top.

But the mass firings never happened. While an undetermined number of teachers resign out of dissatisfaction or fear that they will be fired, only a handful of terminations happen because of bad evaluations.

Also, while the initial proposal sought to pay teachers based on performance instead of seniority, the actual pay plan does both. Teachers receive pay bumps at three-year intervals and, if they score highly in the ratings system, they get bonus pay.

Evaluators were supposed to serve two-year stints, then cycle back to the classroom. Instead, many stay three and four years.

Critics say they become bureaucrats and not true peers. But Brown said that with more experience, they are better qualified to do the job.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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