Ky. Schools Put On the Line in Bonus Budgeting

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Centerfield, Ky.

Twenty-six million dollars can buy a lot--heaping portions of good will, a measure of respect, or a slew of trouble.

Kentucky lawmakers have put up the money. But now, after giving the teachers free reign over how to divide or spend the first-time bonuses issued to the state's top-performing schools, observers are both wincing and applauding as local decisionmaking takes over.

As the 480 schools that won the cash approach a May 1 deadline for declaring their plans for dividing the money, everyone is feeling a little awkward.

"It's not as simple as we thought when we went into our committee meeting," said Rita Keller, the counselor at Centerfield Elementary School, which reaped nearly $89,000 in bonus funds. "It gets into all these individual situations pretty fast."

Others have a bleaker view of the process.

"Money brings out the worst in people," said Wayne Young, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. "I've seen too many brothers and sisters fight over $1,000 of Daddy's money. I don't see this as being any different. It's a recipe for some really distasteful things happening."

Indeed, state officials report that they have gotten queries from teachers asking if they can vote to blackball fellow teachers who have impeded their schools' progress. Several communities have reported that bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers at winning schools have served notice that they feel entitled to a share of the money. In other areas, pressure has been exerted on teachers to forgo the bonuses and plow the money back into equipment for their schools.

The first lawsuit over the bonuses was filed this month in eastern Kentucky after a former teacher at a winning school learned that its faculty was including only the teachers whose names appeared on the state's official reward list. That list included only certified school employees who were on the payroll on the last working day of the 1993-94 school year.

New Spin on Merit Pay

The bonuses are part of the 1990 school-reform law that has delivered site-based decisionmaking councils to most of the state's roughly 1,400 schools, strengthened anti-nepotism rules, and set in motion curriculum changes.

Lawmakers told teachers that if they met performance goals by this year, they would get a slice of the bonus bonanza. A new round of bonuses will be handed out every two years. The state divides up the money based on the number of schools that qualify. The scale this year ran from $1,300 to $2,600 per teacher.

Unlike earlier merit-pay plans, the Kentucky rewards program groups teachers by the performance of their schools in the hope of fostering teamwork. Schools get cash if they post progress that exceeds the state's 20-year improvement plan. Schools that decline markedly run the risk of being taken over.

The high-stakes program is meant to put backbone in the state's revamped testing system, which, in turn, is intended to drive more thoughtful curriculum and teaching practices. And most of it is taking place in an atmosphere of reduced state involvement in day-to-day school decisions.

Some teachers have said they wish the legislature had spelled out how the money should be allotted to protect them from the controversial choices.

Thomas C. Boysen, the state's education commissioner, repeated earlier this year that the money was intended as bonuses for teachers; but beyond that, state officials have largely stayed out of the local bonus budgeting, where only a majority vote is necessary.

With the state's deadline for a faculty vote nearing, some state officials see the turmoil escalating as the schools most reluctant to take a stand on the money begin to finally tackle the issue.

School officials have known since February if they were eligible for the rewards. But even in schools where the decision was made early, the matter has not been simple or clear-cut.

Sharing the Glory

"There's no question that these are not easy issues," says Paul Upchurch, the principal at Centerfield Elementary, a 650-student K-5 school near Louisville.

"I've been very worried about the process from the onset because anytime you deal with money, you stand a chance of causing internal damage," he said. "I don't think we've had any casualties, which I'm really glad about."

Centerfield Elementary School avoided any ill feelings by including everyone who worked in the building over the two-year period covered by the rewards.

Teachers, Mr. Upchurch, and other certified employees will each get $2,138. Teachers who worked with the 4th graders who took the state tests will get an extra $200. Teachers who only worked one year and retired will get $800. New teachers who did not work at the school during the earlier tests will get $300. Other teaching staff--aides and office workers--will get $110. Custodians get $60. Lunchroom staff, bus drivers, and new "classified" workers will get $35.

The teachers, who approved the plan on a 40-to-1 secret ballot, asked that any leftover money go to the school's library.

"Our school's reputation is at stake in these tests, so we have tried to turn this into a recognition for excellence," Mr. Upchurch said.

The inclusive spirit that runs through the distribution at Centerfield Elementary School is common across the state. Teachers at one high school voted to pay for steak dinners for the entire school staff and contribute money to the activity fund of the 11th-grade class that was tested as a bow to the students' role.

Despite doling out recognition, however, many teachers have not shied away from arguing that they deserve their share.

"Everybody here contributes, and everybody here should share in the glory, but we also looked at the other side of the issue and asked if we were to get sanctions, who would it be that would bear the brunt," said Debbie Haertzen, a special-education teacher who served on the Centerfield rewards committee. "We all feel like we've earned every penny we're getting."

Making Change

For somebody who is about to get a $2,300 bonus check in a couple of weeks, Chris Wilcox is decidedly unexcited. At the end of a grueling day, she sits deep in an old couch in her 4th-grade classroom at Centerfield Elementary School. She looks exhausted.

Last week and this week are testing periods for her students, who on this day wrote for three hours about their solutions to seven math problems. Yesterday, it was writing about what they gathered from reading passages. Four more days of writing--intensive science, social studies, humanities, and composition tests--lie ahead.

The chores of changing the school's way of teaching has consumed the school's 41 faculty members, especially over the past year. Viewed against the roller coaster of her job, the reward check has not yet registered as something to seriously ponder.

When pressed, she said she probably would use her bonus check to pay bills and to compensate herself for the $500 of her money she figures she has spent this year on her class.

"When we really do get it, when that happens, it will be significant for us, and it will hit home to the schools that didn't get it," Ms. Wilcox said. "I think that in a lot of schools, they didn't think it would come to pass."

Teachers here said it is too early to begin asking what the reward program will do to advance the Kentucky Education Reform Act. First, the state has to prove that it can live up to its word.

Beyond that, they said, it is doubtful that the money will serve as a major incentive. At best, the money will be a fitting gesture for the long hours educators have logged at schools like Centerfield Elementary since 1990, teachers here said.

"We are getting a lot more out of kids than we ever used to," Ms. Wilcox said, "but it has been too much too fast in a lot of ways."

Brenda Rich, who sat paging through the writing portfolios of her kindergarten and 1st-grade students, said she looked forward to using her bonus on training programs. After 18 years of working at an elementary school, the new thrust of the reform law has invigorated her, she said.

"This is the reward I am receiving," she said, pointing to her students' work. "It's not the money. That will come and go. But this will be in my heart forever."

"The money is not going to make someone more dedicated to kids than they already are," Mr. Upchurch added. "You either embrace something or you don't, and people around here know that our schools know that our teachers pour themselves out. It is hard to buy commitment."

Vol. 14, Issue 31

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