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Virginia District Suspends Heralded Merit-Pay System

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One of the largest and best-known programs in the country tying teacher pay to performance fell victim to budget cuts last week, as the Fairfax County, Va., school board voted to suspend the district's merit-pay system for the 1992-93 school year.

The 7-to-4 vote, which followed a heated debate, came as something of a surprise to local observers. Many people had expected the board to scale back the amount of merit-pay bonuses from the current 9 percent, but a complete suspension of the program was not widely anticipated.

Superintendent of Schools Robert R. Spillane, who has made the controversial merit-pay plan one of his central reforms, described the action as "a regression toward mediocrity." He blamed the local teachers' unions for "putting all their efforts into killing merit pay."

While the school board voted to save $8.4 million by suspending the program, it approved an extra step in teachers' salary schedule. Mr. Spillane called that a sign that the district is returning to basing pay on longevity rather than on performance.

"I'm not personally disappointed as much as I'm disappointed for the 2,200 teachers who woke up this morning with a 9 percent pay cut," Mr. Spillane said.

Under the system, adopted in 1986, teachers who pass a rigorous evaluation earn a 9 percent bonus each year for four years. About 23 percent of the district's 9,000 teachers receive the bonuses.

Union Sought Phaseout

Officials of the Fairfax Education Association, the county's largest teachers' union, had urged the school board to phase out merit pay rather than suspending it completely and taking money out of teachers' paychecks.

Kelly Peaks Homer, the association's president-elect, said teachers have come to rely on the bonuses, averaging about $4,000 a year, to "make ends meet."

The F.E.A. initially supported the merit-pay plan, which originally included a 10 percent salary increase for teachers deemed excellent. The group withdrew its support three years ago when the school board shifted to awarding smaller yearly bonuses.

Although the F.E.A. still supports the evaluation component of the merit system, Ms. Homer said the bonus portion has "created an atmosphere of competition which is not necessarily helpful when you're working with children."

"Our business is all about sharing good ideas," she said, "and it does not promote that."

Rick Nelson, the president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, which has opposed merit pay and the teacher-evaluation system from the start, said that "[w]e're very happy to see it go."

"This school system has spent $50 million on something that has never worked in any school system," he added. "We thought that action approached malfeasance with public funds."

Superintendent Spillane's proposed $903-million budget for next year had included almost $60 million in cuts, but it would have continued funding for merit pay.

"In a billion-dollar budget, $8.4 million for quality teachers is a drop in the bucket," Mr. Spillane said. The school beard, however, opted to use that money to restore some teaching positions and instructional programs in areas such as music and physical education that had been targeted for cuts. For the second year a row, the district's budget includes no money for cost-of-living increases for teachers.

'An Easy Target'

Lynn Cornett, who directs the career-ladder clearinghouse at the Southern Regional Education Board, said districts throughout the country have elected, as Fairfax County did, to save programs rather than raise teachers' salaries in recent years.

"Merit pay is certainly an easy target" when budgets have to be cut, she said.

"There's a lot of that going on with reforms right now because of the budget situation," she added. "People are asking if they're putting a lot of effort into things that won't be funded."

Although the decision to suspend Fairfax County's program is supposed to be temporary, no one expects it will be restored easily.

"As I look at the fiscal picture," said Ms. Homer of the Fairfax Education Association, "I don't know where they're going to find the money anytime soon to reinstate it." Even Mr. Spillane acknowledged that it would be almost impossible to put some $8 million back in the budget during a time of economic constraints.

But the superintendent vowed to continue pushing for merit pay.

"The public supports this by a wide margin," he said, "so I'll take my case to the people."

The school budget now goes to the county board of supervisors, which is scheduled to vote on it April 27. The supervisors can reduce the district's entire budget, but they cannot cut or restore special programs such as merit pay.

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