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Pasco schools seeking $40 million from Race to the Top

LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco County school district has applied for $40 million in the Obama administration's latest round of Race to the Top, news that came as a surprise to School Board members on Wednesday — a day after the deadline would have passed if Hurricane Sandy had not forced an extension.

"That's brand-new to me," said board member Steve Luikart, who aired doubts in 2010 when the district's joined in the state's application for Race to the Top funds. "I still have questions about taking money from the federal government, because it always costs us money."

Board members Allen Altman and Alison Crumbley also said they were unaware of the application from Superintendent Heather Fiorentino's staff, despite the district's "intent to apply" letter back in August. They also had questions about the requirements the district would have to meet if it wins a piece of the total fund of $400 million.

"What are the strings attached?" Crumbley wondered. "What are the mandates? I don't know anything about this."

The board is scheduled to consider the grant proposal at its meeting Tuesday.

Kurt Browning, who faces token write-in opposition for the superintendent's job in Tuesday's general election, said he had not been consulted. He did not have any information about the priorities, including the primary one listed on the U.S. Department of Education's website — the design of "personalized learning environments" for students.

The district's application also talks about creating new assessments of student achievement, developing training to help teachers transform into instructional coaches, and implementing a new student data system.

Without added information, Browning hesitated to say whether he supported the proposal.

Several of the 892 school districts nationwide that signaled their intent to apply for the grant, which is likely to be split among 15 to 20 districts, decided not to file the paperwork in the end, according to news reports.

The Palm Beach and Los Angeles school districts, for instance, could not reach accords with their teachers union that would allow them to meet the aims of the grant. The Waterloo, Iowa, school district backed out after deciding it could not field a competitive proposal.

Others, including Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, moved ahead with their applications after discussing the merits with their board members and teacher associations.

In Pasco, the United School Employees of Pasco got on board in time to meet the deadline. USEP president Lynne Webb, who was among the first teacher leaders in Florida to reject the first Race to the Top application, said she had fewer reservations this time around. "It is not as drastic as the components that were in the original Race to the Top," Webb said, adding that the district sought input from her team while preparing the application. "We agreed to apply. If they get the grant, then we will negotiate the impact."

School Board chairwoman Joanne Hurley and vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong, told of the grant midmorning on Wednesday, supported the effort.

Both noted that the grant requirements fall in line with what the district is already doing and the state already mandates. Two years ago, the issue of whether to participate in Race to the Top was more contentious, Armstrong said, because the state rules on evaluations, testing and so forth were not in place.

"We know we're going to have to spend the money on these items," she said. "It only makes sense to take advantage of the (grant) money if we can get it."

Hurley, who as chairwoman has set the board's workshop agendas, could not explain why the board had not discussed the grant, which was first announced by the Obama administration in May. She said this latest incarnation of Race to the Top did not seem controversial to her. "I am in favor of applying for it," Hurley said. "I'm comfortable this time."

Assistant superintendent John Mann said the administration did not bring the grant proposal to the board ahead of time for a couple of reasons. First, he said, the time was short to prepare all the materials. Second, the grant objectives were aligned with district goals and state and federal mandates.

"If there was anything controversial, that's when we would bring it to the board up front," said district grant writer Tammy Rabon, noting that the board had plenty of time to discuss the first Race to the Top grant.

Luikart said he had no issue with the superintendent's staff preparing the application. That's their job, he said. The concern, he continued, remained how much the district would have to spend beyond any award it might get.

"I'm not one to turn down any free money," Luikart said. "But I understand there's no such thing as free money. I'm more open-minded now than I was before. But I'm still skeptical."