HISD's teacher bonus project will get a 'hard look'
As HISD educators prepare to take home $42 million in performance bonuses today, Superintendent Terry Grier said the district must take a "hard look" at a program that rewards 92 percent of employees.
Grier plans to congratulate the top-earning teacher, Andres Balp, in his Lyons Elementary School classroom this morning. The veteran fourth-grade teacher — soon to be $11,330 richer — said he's elated to be able to pay off some bills.
The celebration next year could be more subdued, perhaps with smaller checks and fewer people getting them.
A looming state budget crunch could put the Houston Independent School District significantly short on funding next year.
And money aside, Grier said in an interview Tuesday that district officials need to consider overhauling the bonus system to better distinguish the top performers.
"We've got to take a hard look at that program, and we've got to be willing to change it," Grier said. "When you have 92 percent of your employees receiving a bonus, you've got to ask yourself, 'Is it really a bonus program, or is it a program where you're spreading out $42 million?' "
More than 11,000 classroom teachers received some award, with about 130 earning nothing, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis. Among non-teaching employees, such as clerks, custodians and counselors, about 20 percent earned no bonus.
The principal of Burbank Middle, Jose Espinoza, received the top award — $15,530 — among his colleagues. Espinoza was promoted this year to be a school improvement officer, supervising other principals.
On average, classroom teachers received more than $3,000, principals earned $5,000 and higher-level administrators pocketed $10,000.
Grier received $18,000; he was eligible for $30,000 in this first year of his contract.
In general, the bonuses are based on a complex formula involving students' scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and on the national Stanford exam.
The formula, known as value-added, does not consider whether students passed the tests but if they scored better than expected based on their own past performance. In other words, did teachers add value to their students?
Like winning the lottery
Among teachers, those in the core academic subject areas — such as English and math — qualify for the most money.
Other school employees, teachers in non-tested subjects and those at younger grade levels earn money based on campus-wide student performance. The teachers whose students improve the most get the most money.
Balp, the top bonus recipient among teachers, said he hopes the district is able to continue the program in the face of the budget problems.
"At a time when budgets are being cut, this is a way to attract and retain good teachers," said Balp, who has taught at Lyons for 17 years.
Jennifer Blessington, an English teacher at Johnston Middle School, said she, too, is grateful for the extra money — $7,800 in her case — but she echoed long-standing concerns that the formula is confusing and seems random.
"It truly feels like you're winning the lottery," she said.
The teachers earning the 10 largest bonuses hailed from Lyons; Burbank, Jackson and Pershing middle schools; and Milby High School. The principal of Burbank Middle, Jose Espinoza, received the top award — $15,530 — among his colleagues.
About 30 percent of the funding for the district's bonus system, called ASPIRE, comes from a state grant slated for possible elimination under the Legislature's recent budget proposals.
2 percent of HISD budget
HISD board President Paula Harris said she can't promise the bonus program won't be reduced, especially under a worst-case budget scenario that could cost the district more than $300 million in state funding. This year's bonus payout equals more than 2 percent of the district's overall budget.
"I can't say we're not going to cut programs that are very near and dear to our hearts, and that one is very near and dear," Harris said of the bonus system, which the district launched in 2007.
Where to cut back
Depending on the size of the budget shortfall, board member Carol Mims Galloway said she would support cutting the bonuses for high-level administrators, including Grier.
"They're not the ones doing all the work. They're not at the school level," said Galloway, who once worked for the Houston Federation of Teachers union.
Gayle Fallon, the president of the HFT, has opposed the performance pay formula since the start but wasn't ready Tuesday to advocate slashing the funding.
"It's really easy to just say kill it," Fallon said. "Then you take money away from a significant number of members. I'd rather improve it. But in a tight budget year, it could be that money versus draconian cuts that hurt teachers, students and everyone — at which point you kill it."
Chronicle reporter Yang Wang contributed to this report.
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