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Pasco schools learn FCAT recognition money is on the way

Published Feb. 24, 2012

WESLEY CHAPEL — As Feb. 1 came and went, teachers at John Long Middle School began wondering whether they would ever see a penny of the promised funding for their school's strong FCAT performance a year earlier.

The school learned it had earned an A back in June. Its advisory committee had to submit a plan to use its recognition money by the end of January.

Yet the state Department of Education gave schools no indication of how much to expect, much less whether the funds would be coming at all. Delayed high school grades, and then appeals to those marks, held the news in limbo.

"We were wondering if and when the state was going to release the money," Long Middle principal Christine Wolff said.

The doubts ceased on Thursday, as schools got word that the department had announced the amounts each one would receive, at $70 per student, along with word that the check was on its way.

The Pasco district finance office quickly sent confirmation to the schools.

"Please share this information with your staff," chief finance officer Olga Swinson wrote, along with a list of how the county's $2.8 million would be disbursed. "Finance Services will contact you to give you details about moving forward with your school's plan."

In past years, school plans have caused heated disputes. Factions within schools have battled over who should get bonuses with the windfall, and then how much everyone should get.

Sometimes groups advocated to keep the money in the school for supplies or extra help, noting that bonuses get 40 percent taken off the top for federal income taxes while the other expenses are tax free. At least a small group of schools each year have historically gone this route.

This time around, with raises and other contractual monetary incentives out of the picture, such debates have been muted.

All the schools reached by the Times indicated that their plans for the recognition funds will go to staff bonuses.

"Everyone is getting an equal share of the money," Wolff said. "All personnel who worked at the school last year."

The Long Middle staff and school advisory committee rejected a slight modification that would have given partial payments to employees who worked at the school only part of the year.

Anclote High School, which is getting recognition funds for the first time, also went for bonuses. Anyone who worked at the school at least 80 percent of the 2010-11 academic year will share in the money the school gets for raising its F grade to an A.

"There was also another plan, which was to contribute a percentage back for supplies for the school," principal Monica Ilse said. "It was felt that, being a new school, there was not a need in that area."

The school didn't have much time to debate the issue, regardless, having only learned of its grade less than a month before the state mandated that plans be turned in.

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Questions have continued to circulate throughout Florida education circles about whether the recognition funds, established during Jeb Bush's administration, should remain part of the state's funding plan.

Some teacher associations have argued that the money should be placed into the general fund for all employees to benefit, as opposed to only those at schools that make gains on FCAT or earn an A in the state grading system. Other critics have suggested that the approximately $110 million should go toward the state's recently required merit pay plan, which has yet to be funded.

Some Florida senators have discussed moving the recognition funds into extended day programs such as after-school care and tutoring for 2012-13, while the House approved a budget that would increase the fund back to $100 per student at the awarded schools.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.