Grand Rapids payout likely; other districts still not certain

The majority of Grand Rapids Public Schools employees are expected to receive a cash payment this year because district enrollment declined less than anticipated. The district is one of a handful in Michigan that offered teachers and other employees a financial incentive for improved enrollment, improved academic performance or both. In at least two cases, the incentives will only be paid if state aid to schools does not drop below a set amount.

Grand Rapids Public Schools had projected an enrollment drop of 800 students in 2006-2007, based on previous declines, according to Fredericka Williams, executive director of human resources for the district. Employees were offered a payment equaling 0.25 percent of their salary if the district lost 600 to 699 students, and up to a 1.75 percent payment if the district lost 100 or fewer students. The payout applied to about 2,700 school employees.

District officials did not know the exact payout as of mid-March because audited enrollment numbers had not been determined, but an early estimate put it at $300,000.

An entry-level teacher with a bachelor’s degree in the Grand Rapids district earns a base salary of $34,630, according to Williams, making the incentive worth between $86 and $606. A teacher at the top of the schedule, with a doctoral degree, earns $63,820, making the incentive worth approximately $160 to $1,100.

"During negotiations, we had tried to find some way to work collaboratively," said Alex Chess, president of the Grand Rapids Education Association. "We basically came up with this together. It was a ‘try it and see if it works,’ if you will." Chess said there was more communication between teachers and parents during the year, with teachers encouraging parents to enroll their students.

In an article in The Grand Rapids Press, Grand Rapids Superintendent Bernard Taylor said staff members also canvassed neighborhoods last summer, introducing themselves to residents.

"All of us have a role in attracting and retaining students," Williams said.

Teachers had already received a 1.25 percent salary increase for 2006-2007. That contract expires June 30. Williams said she did not know if the incentive language would be proposed for the next contract.

Byron Center Increases Linked to State Aid, Enrollment, Academics

Teachers in Byron Center Public Schools could receive up to a 1 percent increase in pay in each of the next three years if enrollment, financial and academic benchmarks are met each year. Financially, the district’s fund balance must equal 12 percent of the operating budget and the per-pupil foundation allowance from the state must increase by at least $210. Academically, five of the district’s six buildings must receive an A on their Michigan School Report Cards and the district must make progress toward accreditation through the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Finally, district enrollment must increase by 100 students.

"It was an opportunity to say that if we’re doing well as a system and if the economy was strong, we could give a little bit more," Superintendent Howard Napp said. There are approximately 190 teachers in the district; the incentive would cost the district a maximum of about $100,000 a year. The incentives would be paid in 2007-2008, 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, and would be in addition to a 2 percent salary schedule increase that teachers will receive in the final two years.

Dave Prindle, president of the Byron Center Education Association, said the contract language reflects that "everybody shares the burden" of operating successful schools, including teachers, administrators and the state itself. "I wouldn’t call them incentives. They’re more indicators," he said of the benchmarks.

"Everybody has a role to play," he said, including teachers in academic achievement, administrators in fiscal responsibility and the state by decisions on school funding. "If it all comes together, parents will want to move into our district."

Five of the district’s six buildings earned an A on the most recent Michigan School Report Cards, Prindle said, and Napp said the fund balance currently is at 15 percent of operating budget. In addition, the district added between 60 and 70 students this year, and Prindle said it is reasonable to expect it could add 100 next year. State funding, Prindle acknowledged, is more questionable.

"That’s kind of just like spinning the wheel of fortune," he said.

All four indicators must be in place in order for teachers to receive the extra payment in the first two years of the contract, but in the third year they can earn partial payments based on how many of the benchmarks are met, Napp said.

Napp said the incentive offer "helps maintain a culture of high expectations. … I really believe this is thinking out of the box." Napp’s own contract with the district includes incentive clauses under which he can earn up to $7,500 in additional pay for meeting specific benchmarks in areas like student academic performance, capital improvement projects and improvement in reading and writing instruction.

Holland Incentive Based on Enrollment, Aid

The salary schedule for the Holland Education Association could increase from 0.25 to 1 percent in the 2007-2008 school year, depending on enrollment and the per-pupil foundation grant. The increase is based on "blended" enrollment counts, which takes into account the fall enrollment and a second count done each February. Holland’s most recent enrollment count was 4,525 students, according to Carol Minnaar, director of human resources.

Next year, if the blended count is at least 4,603 and the foundation grant is at least $7,413, teachers would receive a 0.25 percent increase. Teachers could receive a higher incentive payment for higher enrollment — up to 1 percent if enrollment reaches 4,708. They also could receive an increase if enrollment does not increase, but the foundation grant does.

Holland also is paying a $5,000 stipend to each teacher who earns certification through the National Board of Teaching.

Fennville Waiting on Test Scores

Fennville Education Association members approved a contract last year that would increase their salary schedule by 0.75 percent based primarily on district scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program and the new Michigan Merit Examination.

Superintendent Mark Dobias explained that the district computed an aggregate academic score for itself based on MEAP scores for grades 3 through 12 in 2005-2006, then compared that to an aggregate state score. The comparison showed Fennville was lower than the state by 10 percentage points. The district and teachers agreed that teachers would receive a retroactive payment equal to 0.75 percent of their salary if the district could cut the differential to 5 percent in 2006-2007.

"We aren’t going to know the results for a while," Dobias said, because high school students didn’t take the Merit Test until mid-March. State reports show that the district improved its scores on 15 of 24 MEAP tests among third- through ninth-graders in 2006 compared to 2005.

"We didn’t look at it so much as an incentive, (but) as a bonus for the hard work they had put in," Dobias said. "We have a great student body, but we have a very challenging population." Fennville has a high number of students for whom English is a second language and a high number of economically disadvantaged children, he said.

Dobias does know that the second half of the incentive program — which would have given teachers 0.75 percent increases if the district received $250,000 in additional general fund revenue in 2006-2007 — will not be carried out this year.

"That wasn’t so much an incentive as a sharing of any additional revenue," he said. When district enrollment dropped by 20 students this year, "it negated any possibility of making that."

The district will pay out about $40,000 if the academic incentive is met, he said. There are about 93 teachers in the Fennville Education Association.

The contract between the association and the district expires this June, and Dobias said it’s too early to say if the incentive clauses will be part of the negotiations for a new contract.

"I happen to believe in it. I think it’s a good thing," he said.

Merit Pay Studies Under Way

A number of institutions across the country are testing the idea of paying teachers on the basis of their students’ academic achievement.

In Arkansas, the Achievement Challenge Pilot Project (ACPP) is a merit pay plan that bases awards solely on student achievement gains. Operating in the Little Rock Public Schools, ACPP began with one school in 2004-2005, added a second school in 2005-2006, and added three more schools in 2006. In the fall of 2006, researchers from the University of Arkansas released their first report on the impacts of this program.

They found that students in participating schools improved by 7 percentile points on average on the standardized test score measure of interest, according to Marc Holley, a doctoral fellow at the university. The research methodology essentially compared an individual student’s score on a nationally normed standardized test taken at the beginning of the year to that student’s performance at the end of the year. Teachers earned rewards based on the magnitude of their students’ gains and on the number of students who demonstrated improvement. Individual awards could exceed $8,000, and teachers in both schools earned more than $200,000 total.