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Ill-fated teacher bonuses patchy

Coeur d’Alene district gets up to $4,142 each, but some get nothing

Idaho on Tuesday revealed which schools made the cut under a pay-for-performance system rejected by voters a week earlier.

The controversial merit pay law pushed by the state schools superintendent, and overturned in last week’s election, will be in effect this year only. The state will pay more than $5.5 million in bonuses in North Idaho, including $1.7 million in the Coeur d’Alene School District.

Teachers will receive bonuses of up to $4,142 in the coming weeks, though some who teach at underperforming schools will receive nothing, even if they’re among the best educators in a school district.

In Coeur d’Alene, Borah Elementary School fell short of the state’s criteria for merit pay, and the principal and 20 teachers there won’t get a dime.

Borah also serves the district’s largest population of low-income families, with 78 percent of the students qualifying for the free or reduced-price school lunch program.

Studies consistently show that students from poorer households struggle more in school, highlighting a key criticism of merit pay based on test scores: It unfairly penalizes teachers who choose to work with underprivileged children.

“The way that teachers feel is that especially that formula, but merit pay in general, it can’t possibly be fair,” said Kristi Milan, president of the Coeur d’Alene Education Association, the local teachers union.

“And teachers don’t do their job according to how much extra money they’re going to get,” Milan said. “For one thing, it’s insinuating that you’re not doing your job, and if you were offered just a little more money, you’d do it better. And that’s not true.”

Merit pay was one of three school reform laws spearheaded by state Superintendent Tom Luna and repealed in the general election. The Idaho attorney general this week said the state is still obligated to distribute merit pay to school districts and public charter schools this year because teachers earned the money when the law was in effect.

Most teachers from last school year will receive some money under the merit pay program – the full amount, three-quarters, half or one-quarter. If a school qualifies, all the teachers share equally in the bonus pay.

But some schools in North Idaho did not qualify. In addition to Borah Elementary, they include Lakeside Elementary in the Plummer-Worley district, Priest River Junior High in the West Bonner district, Bonners Ferry High in the Boundary district, Harrison Elementary in the Kootenai district, Shoshone Middle School in the Shoshone district, Pinehurst and Canyon elementary schools in the Kellogg district, and Mullan Junior-Senior High in the Mullan district.

Teachers at three alternative schools, which often focus on students at risk for dropping out or who face learning impediments, also get no bonus.

The Post Falls School District will receive $998,000 in merit pay for all 300 of its teachers, Superintendent Jerry Keane said. He expects to distribute the funds in early December.

On average, teachers in the district will receive about $3,300, with no schools shut out. Two schools will receive quarter shares, two will receive three-quarters shares and the rest will receive full shares, Keane said.

“There are many schools in the state that are receiving zero money,” Keane said. “I think our folks were just relieved that all of our teachers would qualify for some.”

Steady reductions in state appropriations to public schools have meant no pay raises for teachers for several years, he said.

“Everybody had suffered with the economy. So to me I’m very happy to move this money into our staff hands,” Keane said.

Many teachers in the Coeur d’Alene district are talking about pooling their merit pay and redistributing it evenly among everyone, Milan said.

“I know there’s a lot of strong feelings about it,” she said.

Borah Elementary has seen many parents move their children to Sorensen and Ramsey elementary schools, which are designated as magnet schools emphasizing art and science, Milan said.

“A lot of their best and brightest kids are being kind of brain-drained to the two magnet schools, so it’s harder for those kids that are left behind to show growth, but yet they do,” she said. “They just didn’t show as much growth as they had the year before.”

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