ACPS cut from Tallahassee recognition program

The Florida Legislature extended its regular session into Monday in order to pass its annual budget, including a restriction on the 12 school districts that kept mask mandates.

The new education budget prevents those 12 districts, including Alachua County, from participating in the Florida School Recognition Program. The program gives recognition and monetary awards to schools that keep an “A” rating or improve their rating. 

The Senate approved the budget 33-0 after negotiations between the two houses changed the original Putting Parents First Adjustment presented by Rep. Randy Fine, R-District 53. 

Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-District 6, said the decision isn’t a deduction in the budget for these counties since the program didn’t run last year, according to Florida Politics

“What this fund is doing is saying, hey, if you follow the law and your kids and your school is doing well, you have the ability to draw down some of these resources,” Trumbull said. “Should you have broken the law, you don’t receive those resources. That’s as clear as it gets.”

In Alachua County though, officials disagreed with the action. 

Carmen Ward, president of the Alachua County Education Association, said preventing Alachua County from accessing the School Recognition Program is a political stunt. 

“I think it’s super unfair and it’s politics,” Ward said. 

Many district staffers were divided on the mask issue overall, she said, but now the state will punish the district as a whole. Plus, Ward said the district is being hurt for taking expert advice from UF—one of the nation’s top universities

Jackie Johnson, spokesperson for Alachua County Public Schools, said the district lobbied against the bill but to no avail. 

She said the money from this program usually takes the form of teacher bonuses, though school staff and school advisory councils can decide how to spend the money. 

The Legislature started the Florida School Recognition Program in 1997 with funds allocated for the first time in 1998. This year, Florida schools will divvy up a $200 million pot for the 55 qualifying counties and schools. 

Tallahassee produced a mixed bag of bills this session, according to Ward. 

In general, she supported the funding portion coming from the Legislature, but she called other bills anti-students, like the Parental Rights in Education Bill that will prohibit instruction in kindergarten through third grade on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

“There’s so many policies, and so much of what we do is governed by legislation from many people who are not educators,” Ward said. 

On the local salary front, Ward, who also acts as chief negotiator, said talks went well between the school district and its bargaining unit. 

The two units passed a $10.5 million salary agreement earlier this month and employees will start reaping the bonuses and retroactive payment for the salary increase on their Tuesday paychecks. 

Ward said the district’s finance department pulled through by getting the payments ready so quickly after approval. 

“It was a big lift,” Ward said. “It was a big job and they did it.” 

She said the salary increase fell short of what the bargaining unit would like, but extra COVID-19 funds allowed for large bonuses, with some employees eligible for $3,250 in bonuses. 

For employees looking at retirement though, the bonuses have less long term impact since retirement is based on salary. Negotiations will restart in May for the next school term.

“People are, in general, very thankful for what has been put on the table,” Ward said. 

The Florida Legislature’s overall education budget would raise all wages to $15 minimum for all school support staff. 

“By raising up woefully underpaid employees, the move should help districts retain and recruit the support staff essential to meeting students’ needs,” the Florida Education Association said in a press release.

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