Merit pay plan for district's teachers axed

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • October 29, 2011 - 8:15 PM

The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District has dropped out of a program that gave teachers merit pay of up to $2,000 a year.

The district was among the early adopters of Q Comp, an initiative of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty that's meant to improve student learning by encouraging teachers to build their own skills. But after the local teachers' union and administrators couldn't agree on changes to the program this fall, the district told the state it will not participate this year.

The union and district had been developing a new version of Q Comp, which is known as "Pro-Pay" in Burnsville, after the state told them they needed to make changes. Approval was needed from both the school board and union for the program to continue.

But in a 30-3 vote in September, the executive board of the local teachers' union rejected a proposed agreement with the district, declining to take the issue to its full membership.

"I'm disappointed that it didn't happen, but I'm also disappointed in the results of our negotiations with the district," said Libby Duethman, president of the Burnsville Education Association. Talks failed because of time pressure, teachers' mistrust of district leadership and a disagreement about who would be hired to evaluate teachers, she said.

Statewide, 56 districts and 56 charter schools are in Q Comp this year. State records show that the Burnsville district is one of just five to join and then drop out.

The district was "perplexed" by the union's vote, said assistant superintendent Chris Lindholm, "knowing that it was a good chunk of money for people and the new plan was built quite collaboratively."

The district could rejoin the program next year if administrators and the union resolve their differences, according to the Education Department.

One thing the union and district couldn't agree on, Duethman said, was whether the district should commit to hiring internal candidates as the instructional coaches who would have evaluated teachers for merit pay.

Both she and Lindholm also said that the parties were pressed for time. The district had an Oct. 1 state deadline to complete the plan and a companion memo laying out details, which teachers had little time to consider, Duethman said.

According to Lindholm, one problem was that state officials were slow to give feedback on the new plan.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle, though, was a "general mistrust right now between employees in the district and the district administration," Duethman said. "Some of the changes that were made in the Q Comp plan, while they may not have been significant, people really looked on ... with suspicion."

New people, new ideas

Asked what's causing the mistrust, she said, "That's a great question, and it's one that we're really working on with [the] district administration. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we have new people in the district, and they have new ideas." She listed the superintendent and several other top administrators who have joined the district in the past few years.

Lindholm, one of the newcomers, said the district honors its teachers. "I am a teacher at heart, and I value teachers, and it's disappointing to me that people would judge me before they really know who I am or what I'm about," he said.

The state asked the district to update its Q Comp application two years ago, after the legislative auditor reported, among other things, that districts were held to different standards by the state depending on when they joined the program.

Burnsville was asked to clarify several aspects of its plan, including teacher training and evaluation components. Much of the program centered around evaluations and classroom observations that teachers underwent to earn merit pay.

According to the state, the district has received more than $2.6 million a year for Q Comp -- a combination of state aid and locally levied dollars -- for the past five years.

In 2009-10, the most recent year for which the state could provide complete data, 99.6 percent of teachers in the Burnsville district earned extra pay by meeting performance standards. Smaller amounts also went to teachers whose classrooms and schools met program goals. About 90 percent of teachers met classroom goals for student achievement, while 8 percent met schoolwide goals.

Duethman, who is a teacher as well as union president, said she was a fan of Q Comp, partly because of the relationship it fostered with her evaluator.

"I definitely felt like I was able to improve my teaching practice and get new ideas from her," she said.

Lindholm agreed that the evaluators funded through the program helped teachers improve. But Q Comp, he argued, "had a very minimal impact on student achievement."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-746-3284

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