NICEVILLE —The Okaloosa County School Board reluctantly voted Monday to withhold Best and Brightest scholarship money from pre-kindergarten teachers after a recommendation from Superintendent Marcus Chambers.
“We submitted the names of these pre-k teachers without knowing for sure if we were allowed to award them or not,” Assistant Superintendent Steven Horton said. “In other districts there was an audit finding where the district was going to have to pay it back. We are trying to avoid it happening here.”
Horton said Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarships are awarded to eligible teachers in the kindergarten to 12th grade, and that in a recent audit of the Clay County School District, the district was asked to reimburse $31,200 that had been paid to pre-k teachers.
“I wish the Best and the Brightest program would be revised to the point where that money would go to teachers in general; pre-k teachers, adult-ed teachers, guidance counselors, staff instructors, speech therapists, all of the classifications of teachers who meet this criteria,” Chambers told School Board members. “I wish I didn’t have to make this motion.”
Following Chamber’s recommendation, School Board members discussed the issue and at one point Dewey Destin moved to table the topic, but later withdrew that motion when it was found that tabling the issue would leave the superintendent with no directive. After a 10-minute discussion, the board voted 4-1 to pass the motion presented by Chambers to withhold scholarships to pre-k teachers. Destin voted no.
“This is why in Tallahassee they need to be a little bit be more clear when they make these laws that put us in a Catch-22 and we have to do this here tonight,” board member Tim Bryant said.
Board member Linda Evanchyk said that while Bryant was choosing a diplomatic approach, she would not mince her words.
“This is just ridiculous that legislators would send this down to us without any direction, and once again teachers are taking the rap," Evanchyk said. "We can’t give a whole section of teachers what they have earned because of not getting a directive, and then when we’ve asked for a directive, we don’t get a response. So it’s frustrating.”
Destin said he believes the district does have a say in the matter, but the law is unclear.
“The law that the Legislature passed is very vague,” Destin said. “It defines what K-12 is but then it says after that, ‘The decision shall be made by the individual districts.’ ”
Destin added that it seems to him that the law allows the district to decide who qualifies. He also said the School District has asked for the State Attorney’s Office to clarify the law.
“That’s a question that we are going to have to answer maybe next year,” Destin said. “If the Legislaturer hasn’t fixed that, then the courts will have to say what it means.”
In Okaloosa County, 32 pre-kindergarten teachers were nominated for the Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarships. According to the bill, the scholarship was meant to, “reward classroom teachers who achieved high academic standards during their own education.”
Teachers could be eligible for three levels of scholarships, including a $6,000 award for scoring at or above the 80th percentile on a college entrance exam, and being evaluated as highly effective during the school year immediately preceding the scholarship nomination. Teacher also could be awarded a $1,200 or $800 scholarship for being highly effective or effective in a classroom setting.