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Questions Linger As Start Of Duval Teacher Incentives Program Nears

Jacksonville Public Education Fund

The new school year is about a month away, along with an unprecedented new performance incentives program in Duval County Public Schools. However, with just a few weeks to go before the initiative begins, the details on how the incentives will be administered remain unclear.

Duval County School Board members raised several questions about the details during this week’s workshop.

The incentives initiative was announced by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti in the spring. It is one of several new initiatives funded by Quality Education for All (QEA) — a pool of private donations aimed at improving student performance at the district’s 36 most vulnerable schools, also referred to as the district’s “transformation schools.”

Under the performance incentive program, high-performing teachers working outside the 36 designated schools would receive a $17,000 bump in pay if they agree to move to one of the hard to staff schools. They could receive the same bonus or less in the following two years, depending on student performance.

High-performing teachers already working within the schools will receive a $20,000 a year bump if they agree to remain at their school over the next three years. Likewise, high-performing principals at the 36 schools would receive a $20,000 a year pay bump over the next three years. In both cases, their bonuses are dependent on student performance.

Vitti has called the incentive plan the first to offer teachers such sizable bonuses in the nation.

The QEA funds are housed at local nonprofit the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida. In general, education policy research nonprofit Jacksonville Public Education Fund serves as the grant-writing arm for the funds.  

But Tuesday, Couch and other board members questioned who would administer the incentive program funds to teachers and who would collect on them if teachers or principals failed to keep their end of the bargain.

“Who collects the funding if the teacher resigns early,” School Board Chairwoman Becki Couch asked. “Who is now the collection agent? Would it be the district or would it be the district or would it be the Community Foundation?”   

Vitti said the district would collect the money, but he said the details on how that would happen still needed to be worked out.

“We can work with (Community Foundation) to create a structure on how to do that,” he said.

Also of concern to board members was whether or not the incentive pay would count toward teachers’ retirement benefits.

Sonita Young, the district’s chief human resources officer, said the money would not count towards retirement. Originally, the district expected that it would, she said.

“We did desire that it would, but when we looked at the IRS language, we discovered that it could not be,” she said.

That came as a surprise to Duval Teachers United union President Terrie Brady. Brady said the union was under the impression that the extra money would count toward the employee benefits when it entered into an agreement with the district to implement the program. The memorandum of understanding was also never revised to reflect the change, Brady said.

School Board member Ashley Smith-Juarez questioned whether any fees would be attached to the administration of the funds.

“Has any type of administrative fee been discussed along with that? I know JPEF charges a 6 percent administrative fee for anything that is passed through,” she said.

When asked about the fee Smith-Juarez was referring to, JPEF President Trey Csar said the group does not charge any fees for writing grants tied to the QEA funds due to a previous agreement entered between JPEF and the Community Foundation.

Csar said that a contract between JPEF and the district specifying how money for the performance incentives program would be administered has not been finalized yet.

“Everything is preliminary at this point,” he said.

Couch said she was concerned with the lack of oversight the school board has had on the matter, so far.

“I think the board is certainly appreciative of the stepping out of the box that the superintendent has done with creating this initiative and working with partners,” she said.  “There’s a lot of oversight that the board needs clarity on with payment schedules and the money flowing into the district because that does fall under the purview of the school board.”
The point of Tuesday’s questions was to raise those concerns ahead of time.

“We’re asking them now before the school year starts,” she said.

Beginning July 28, the district, in partnership with JPEF will host a series of QEA informational sessions for the community. The meetings take place from 6 p.m. to 7:30 at Andrew Jackson High School on July 28;  William Raines High School on July 31; and Jean Ribault High School Aug. 4.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.