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School district may seek grant dollars after all

By Staff | Jan 23, 2010

The Lee County School District may reconsider its decision to opt out of the federal Race to the Top grant program.
Earlier this month the board voted not to sign the memorandum of understanding between Lee County and the Florida Department of Education because the local teacher union didn’t support the document.
The Teacher’s Association of Lee County was one of three signatures missing from the MOU — along with signatures from Superintendent James Browder and Chairman Steve Teuber — but the board also said they wouldn’t give their approval.
Browder suggested the district submit the document so the county didn’t miss out on federal stimulus grants that could be used for teacher improvement, but the board wouldn’t budge on staying loyal to the union.
In the end the county didn’t send anything to the state.
Mark Castellano, president of TALC, said the district missed the deadline and won’t receve what Browder estimated to be $8 million to $10 million, but he said there will be a second and third round of grants.
“As far as what we are doing, we are done at this point,” said Castellano, who passionately addressed the school board on Jan. 12 about the FLDOE “usurping” the memorandum to achieve its own objectives.
Union delegates were disappointed that the program — touted for its local participation between unions and school districts — left decision making in the hands of the state. The federal government, on the other hand, created broad definitions for the program and left the specifics up to local officials.
Castellano accused the state of adding policies to the MOU that failed the legislative process in the past.
“The original intent was that this was a locally negotiated idea or plan to target low- performing schools,” said Castellano. “Instead the Florida DOE usurped it and made this prescriptive thing saying this is what everybody has got to do.”
In a prepared statement from TALC on Jan. 12, said the FLDOE’s plan would “mean more demands on how teachers conduct their lessons and more paperwork for teachers already inundated by it. And our students would face even more standardized testing, which has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade.”
The deadline to submit applications for the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program was Jan. 19 and two days later Gov. Charlie Crist signed the state’s overall application to receive $700 million for Florida schools. According to a release from the governor’s office, half of the $700 million will go to schools while the remaining balance will support state-level projects.
Florida’s overall application addresses curriculum standards, assessments of student learning, an increased use of data, teacher and leader quality and assistance for struggling schools.
“The success of our grant application will allow us to further increase student achievement and teacher effectiveness, which will strengthen Florida’s talent pool of graduates entering our workforce,” said Crist in a prepared statement.
Fifty-nine of the 67 school districts in Florida submitted applications to the state. According to Browder, funding left over from districts that don’t participate in Race to the Top is divvied among the rest. Data from the FLDOE showed that Lee County would have received $15.5 in the first round if all districts participated.
Even though school district officials are disappointed over missing out on much- needed funds, Castellano said both the district and union are poised to look over a second or third round of grant money, as long as the state changes the MOU. Castellano added that the second round of Race to the Top should begin sometime in the summer of 2010, after the participating districts receive their grant money in mid-April.
“We don’t have any of the lowest performing schools in the state in this county, but there are things we can do for the lower performing schools,” said Castellano.
Race to the Top is designed to help Title I schools, or those with low academic achievement and a high percent of students on free or reduced lunch, yet there are none in Cape Coral. Two nearby west zone Title I schools are J. Colin English Elementary and North Fort Myers Academy of the Arts.
One option was to use the grant money to hold curriculum training in the summer for teachers to meet some of the standards being presented by Race to the Top. Browder contended earlier this month that Lee County has already meet a majority of the proposed changes.
Bob Rushlow, president of the Support Personnel Association of Lee County, said the state informed him that support employees like bus drivers or food service workers wouldn’t be effected by the MOU, but he is skeptical.
“If we have to stop what we are doing because of the training, that is extra work on us, and that would have an impact us,” said Rushlow. “It will have some kind of an impact.”
School board member Robert Chilmonik said he would be willing to look at another MOU in the future.
“I would be willing to re-look at it, but it depends on what type of changes they are talking about,” he said. “I think that with the challenges we are facing we need to look at every avenue of revenue we can, but by being respectful of the classroom and ensure our teachers are given the tools they need to improve education.”