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After much debate, public opinion and a little soul searching, the Los Alamos School Board decided to let a state-sanctioned “one-time” merit pay program die where it stood.
No votes were taken on the matter. Instead, the board opted to take no motion on the offer and moved on to the next item on their agenda, effectively rejecting the New Mexico Public Education Department’s invitation for the district to sign up for a program, that, if it met all the qualifications, could’ve meant a little extra cash for some of the district’s teachers and principals.
According to the program’s application, teachers marked “exemplary” could earn a $7,000 bonus; those with a rating of “highly exemplary” could earn a $5,000 bonus.
Called the “New Mexico Incentive Pilot Program” the purpose of the program, according to NMPED, is to “reward New Mexico’s best teachers and principals throughout the state,” according to a statement in the program’s application form.
NMPED has set aside $7.5 million for the pilot program, with the hopes that the pilot program will “improve the performance of teachers and principals through incentive pay policies implemented by districts and charters” and “increase the retention of high performing teachers and principals in schools,” according to its application form.
Teachers that spoke before the board Tuesday night basically called NMPED’s invitation a slap in the face to their profession. Some also characterized it as a not-so-subtle bribe to get them to buy into NMPED’s teacher evaluation system, a system that has been roundly criticized as ineffective and cumbersome by many teachers within the district.
“Teachers don’t teach for money,” said teacher Andrea Determan to the board.
“That’s one of the embarrassing things for me, to have our district endorse the idea that we’re teaching for money. That’s horrible. Teachers should not want to teach for money but because they love teaching and want to serve the kids, now we’re going to be put in a position where we are going to be teaching for money.”
Teacher Brian Easton also told the board that if they signed up for the program, the district would also be signaling to the NMPED that it accepts and endorses the department’s teacher evaluation program, a program called “NMTEACH.” A clause in the application states that only districts that use the NMTEACH program to evaluate teachers can qualify for the bonuses and rewards.
“this is not a one-time deal. Our endorsement of this, by asking for this money is our endorsement of the system, which is what is needed to try and get the state legislature to make (NMTEACH) permanent.,” Easton said.
Many teachers, including Easton, have been working with the state as well as the district to modify certain aspects of NMTEACH, even though teachers as well as members of the board think NMTEACH is a fundamentally flawed evaluation system.
Board member Jim Hall said he was “torn” at what to think about NMPED’s invitation, saying he wished they had more time so they could ask a wider group of teachers about what they thought.
“If we had more time, I would’ve like to have surveyed a broader group, but at this point, we just don’t have any time,” he said, adding that he was also prepared to decline the invitation.
Superintendent of Schools Gene Schmidt said he had “mixed feelings” about the board’s decision, but said he accepts the board’s reasons for passing up the invitation.
“In some respects, it’s an opportunity lost, it might have been fun for our teachers to participate in,” he said.
“On the other hand, our acceptance into the program would’ve probably been a long shot, because they were looking for schools that had high poverty, and classified as struggling schools, and we are neither of those.”
As for the arguments presented by Determan and Easton, Schmidt said he wasn’t sure if their opinions represented the majority.
“Certainly our state secretary of education has a strong interest in merit pay and incentive pay, so this could be seen as a way to prove that that is a good system. But on other hand mine and (Assistant Superintendent Gerry) Washburn’s motivations were more altruistic in that we were looking to get more money into the hands of our teachers,” Schmidt said. “Everybody is entitled to an opinion, but I don’t know if they (Determan and Easton) were operating on fact. To say the program would have caused disruption in the ranks, I think that’s a subjective thought that isn’t based on fact.”
Schmidt hoped the board will revisit the issue in the future.
“As board member Kevin Honnell said yesterday a year from now we will look back and know if it was a good decision or a bad one.”