The U.S. Department of Education received nearly 1,200 applications for Race to the Top, a $400 million grants program to help struggling schools reform their educational practices.
The applicants included 57 educational agencies in California, with one from Monterey County — Greenfield Union School District.
Missing from the list was the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. Though trustees approved applying for the grant Oct. 22, an application wasn't submitted, district officials said.
The federal government required applicants to have their superintendent, president of the board and president of the union sign the application.
The Monterey Bay Teachers Association didn't sign.
It was all a matter of timing, said Allyson Schweifler, president of the teachers union. A letter of intent was submitted in August, but Schweifler said she was first contacted Oct. 1.
Schweifler worked with district officials, and they all seemed to be on the same page, she said. But she didn't see a final proposal until Oct. 22 — the same day the board was scheduled to approve it.
"It was due a week after we received it," she said.
The apparent lack of coordination between MPUSD and its teachers union illustrates a larger point in the country's ongoing efforts to reform education. The Obama administration has tied school reform to new methods to evaluate teachers — including methods that will use student test scores.
For these reforms to be implemented, teachers have to be on board. But teachers unions are reluctant to allow test scores to be the main method to evaluate them. They fear teachers in low-income communities will be unfairly punished for elements beyond their control.
"You don't want to make (evaluations) punitive," Schweifler said. "I worked for eight years in Seaside, in Ord Terrace (Elementary School). You can't be punitive if you work with students who have socioeconomic issues outside of your control. Military children transfer in and out, so the scores are not consistent. You have to be equitable throughout the whole district, and we were looking at ways to do that."
It wasn't the only issue — or the most important one. Schweifler said she was also concerned about the district using old data and the possibility of shuffling teachers and principals among schools — something that happened when another federal grant was implemented almost three years ago.
"There are things we can work with, but there are things I don't want to have our teachers go through again," she said.
In the contract
Michael Bachicha's first day as MPUSD's director of categorical programs was July 27. Districts had an Aug. 30 deadline to let the federal government know they intended to apply.
Bachicha believed the district had strong elements in place to apply for the grant, including a recently approved provision in the teachers' contract that allows for teacher evaluation as part of "ongoing professional development" and an element that calls for employees to be "assessed on their performance as it reasonably relates to the progress of students."
The contract does not specify what those methods are.
"I actually said, 'You've got the hard part done, you've got this in your contract,'" Bachicha said. "A lot of the districts going to apply are basically making a promise that this will be in the contract."
Many of the applicants, including the large Los Angeles Unified School District, failed to make the final cut on the federal list because they didn't have the teachers union on board.
"It's a sticking point at a national level, but it's already here in the contract," Bachicha said, adding that he felt MPUSD had an advantage over other districts.
MPUSD could have been eligible for up to $30 million, which would have been used to continue implementing practices already put in place with a three-year School Improvement Grant that expires this year. Teachers and administrators throughout the district credit it with new practices that are helping boost achievement for struggling students.
The federal government announced 61 finalists for Race to the Top grants on Monday. Greenfield Union wasn't among them.
It is the first round of Race to the Top funds awarded to individual districts, and just like it did with states, the federal government could have another round of funding, Bachicha said. By then, the district expects to have the support of the teachers union.
"If I'd approached them earlier we could have collaborated better on the grant," he said. "The hard point is you're asking unions to sign an agreement for items that have to be negotiated. The bases for the evaluation are in the contract, but what does the evaluation look like, what are the forms and tools?"
A proposal to allow unions to negotiate how teachers are evaluated was withdrawn from the California Legislature earlier this year. AB 5 had come under heavy fire from business, school administrators organizations and parents organizations. It's expected to be reintroduced next year.
Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or email@example.com.