Some teachers in the Conway School District have voiced their disapproval or confusion regarding the issuance of state-funded bonuses to staff at five of the district’s 15 schools.

Karen Carter, Arkansas Education Association’s UniServ director, said she has received several calls from teachers employed by Conway schools who were “not aware that bonus pay was available or for what purpose until after the checks were handed out.”

“Needless to say, many teachers are upset and becoming more so as they find out,” Carter said. “The ones I’ve heard from do not believe this is fair.”

Carter is referring to a school recognition grant from the state called High Gains High Status.
The grant was awarded to schools meeting a criteria imposed to assess each school’s overall academic achievement in test scores and improvement from year to year.

The grant comes from a program enacted in 2003 called the Arkansas School Recognition Program for the Annual School Rating System. 

A memo from the Arkansas Department of Education’s Commissioner Tom W. Kimbrell said, “This program will provide performance-based incentives to outstanding public schools... The (program) will provide financial incentives for (1) Annual Improvement Category Levels (Gains)...and (2) School Annual Performance Category Levels (Status)...”

The memo also states that each school, in grades three through eight, meeting the requirements listed above would receive performance-based funding in the amount of $100 per student who “participated in the school’s augmented, criterion-referenced assessment program...”

Several calls to the ADE returned with departments unaware of the grant program, or its criteria.

Greg Murry, superintendent of Conway Schools said the grant criteria was dependant on the improvement of standardized test scores, “or they were given what’s called a gains bonus, awarded if they achieved at a higher level.”

Schools receiving bonuses were Ellen Smith Elementary, Ruth Doyle Intermediate, Julia Lee Moore Elementary, Simon Intermediate and Marguerite Vann Elementary. 

Murry said each teacher at the awarded schools received the same pro-rated amount of money, along with administrators, custodial staff and food service employees. 

“If they were half-time in the building, they received half of what a full-time teacher would receive,” Murry said.

According to documents located within a Conway School Board of Education agenda, staff at schools received the following bonuses: 

Teachers at Julia Lee Moore Elementary, $355.58, teachers at Marguerite Vann Elementary, $131.25, teachers at Ellen Smith Elementary, $416.22, teachers at Ruth Doyle Intermediate, $772.33, teachers at Simon Intermediate, $661.88.

Classified staff, which include food service and custodial employees received the following bonuses:
Classified staff at Julia Lee Moore received from $17 to $88. Marguerite Vann Elementary employees in the classified category received $13 to $65. Classified staff at Ellen Smith received $26 to $104. Classified staff at Ruth Doyle Intermediate received $38 to $386, and at Simon Intermediate, $66 to $330.

Carter said she will continue to investigate the matter because she believes the socioeconomic issue is timely in the world of education.

“This is a huge issue for education right now. Teachers have no control over the students put into their classrooms. You have no control over what school you’re assigned to and yet you are awarded a bonus for something you have no control over,” Carter said.

Carter said she is unsure if criteria for meeting the grant was fair, and the Arkansas Education Association, a support organization for public school employees is seeking answers from the Arkansas Department of Education.
“It’s easier in some (schools) to make higher gains in test scores based on the place.”
Carter said lower test scores and slower gains have been “generally tied to poverty,” and teachers have to work harder and longer to make gains.

“The teachers not receiving the bonus had no information and were not aware of it until checks were handed out. They were not aware of the grant. When checks were handed out there were a lot of questions. More information probably would have at least helped the blow of it,” Carter said.

Carter said Conway’s participation in the grant concerns her because the district chose to participate in the grant knowing that all their teachers would not benefit from it, but only some would.
“It was a choice they made,” Carter said.

According to Carter, calls to her organization came from younger teachers employed at the schools not receiving the incentive money. Carter said callers were hurt by the district’s actions and did not perceive it as fair.

“Conway has a great school district and everyone should be proud. The teachers I know who work there are proud to work there, and they have every reason to be. It’s a good school district, but (employees) are hurt by the fact that they didn’t all receive bonuses,” Carter said.

Conway was not the only district in the state to be awarded the grant, according to Murry.
“It wasn’t something we just did locally. We followed the general guidelines in distributing bonuses,” Murry said.

Murry said his understanding was that there were not statistical controls in place for demographic concerns.
“There were two different ways to qualify. High test scores or significant improvement from last year. Those were not our criteria. The Arkansas Department of Education were the ones who awarded it to schools, not our administration. We did as we were told,” Murry said.

Murry said individual staff at awarded schools voted among themselves on what to do with the bonus money and schools were awarded certain amounts based on achievement gains or levels of achievement. Some schools, Murry said, voted to purchase supplies instead of receive bonuses. Others voted for bonuses or a combination of both supplies and bonuses.

At a March meeting of the Conway School Board of Education, Peggy Woosley, director of instructional services said the grant was not likely to be repeated because of a statement from Gov. Mike Beebe saying that there was not enough money in the academic incentive fund to continue the program.

Murry confirmed that the school would not participate again because the funds, to his understanding, were no longer available.

“I do not believe this is money to be repeated in years to come. I don’t expect us to receive these monies in the future, because it won’t be funded, not that our teachers don’t deserve it, but it won’t be available at the state level,” Murry said.

(Staff writer Courtney Spradlin can be reached by e-mail at courtney.spradlin@thecabin.net or by phone at 505-1236. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)