Learning curve

School district struggles to create a fair performance-based pay system

Despite continued progress, major issues remain unsolved in the Steamboat Springs School District's quest for a progressive pay and evaluation system for teachers and staff.

Perhaps the most contentious is the financial impact the proposed Knowledge and Skills-Based Pay system would have on the district's budget, an issue raised by the School Board last week at its retreat.

The School Board and district teachers and staff approved in the spring of 2002 a pay schedule for the KSBP evaluation-based system that would allow qualified teachers the opportunity to reach salary levels traditionally obtained only through tenure.

Under the schedule, which won't take effect until after the evaluation system is completed and approved by staff and the School Board, teachers will be paid based

upon their performance in the classroom. The five levels of teacher pay in the KSBP system -- each level has numerous salaries associated with it -- culminate with advanc-

ed, under which teachers have the potential to make up to $68,000 a year.

The system is considered somewhat revolutionary in the realm of public education. Teachers typically are paid based upon their years of experience, not how well they teach.

Down to the dollar

The potential for higher salaries concerns the School Board because of its need to maintain fiscal responsibility over the district, board members said last week. The board already was forced to slash its budget more than $300,000 earlier this year.

The School Board, which ranked KSBP as its top priority, worried the pay system could become an economic disaster for the district.

"What it comes down to is this: Is (KSBP) a budget-buster or what?" School Board member Pat Gleason asked fellow board members at the retreat.

The School Board's concern is that without proper implementation and management, KSBP could push the district's personnel expenditures to unaffordable levels.

Board member Tom Sharp discussed the possibility of granting Superintendent Donna Howell veto power to prevent a teacher from moving up the pay scale if the district can't afford such an increase.

The issue reveals a difference in opinion between the School Board and most teachers over the long-term vision of KSBP.

The Steamboat Springs Education Association believes all teachers who make advances in their profession should be on the fast track to big salaries, Sharp said.

The district, however, can't afford to have all teachers move up to the top levels of the pay scale. It's an issue that must be addressed sooner rather than later, he said.

High school math teacher and former SSEA President Mike Smith, who is a member of the KSBP development committee, said he was surprised the School Board raised the possibility of granting veto power to a district official and limiting the number of teachers who can reach the top levels of the pay scale.

While Smith acknowledged it would be unlikely for all district teachers to be at the top of the pay scale, he said the School Board always has said it will find the money to pay for KSBP and that there wouldn't be a limit or quota on the number of teachers at a certain level.

"I think they're going to run into problems with the (teacher's) association," Smith said. "We accepted (the KSBP pay plan) under the understanding there would be no limits. If you've got the best teachers, they deserve to be paid for it."

A major factor behind the move toward the progressive pay and evaluation system is to attract and retain the best teachers for the district and to increase accountability.

School Board President Paul Fisher said the answer to the financial dilemma needs to come from the system itself. KSBP needs to be implemented in a way that differentiates performance so not all teachers are on the top pay level, he said.

"It's a huge fiscal issue for this district," Fisher said Thursday. "It can easily bust the budget if it's not managed well.

"Both sides took a leap of faith with KSBP. Staff is trusting that evaluators will be fair and they'll be given the chance to move up. The School Board took a chance because each salary in the top level of KSBP is bigger than any pay schedule we've ever had."

Making it fair

After nearly two years working on the system, the KSBP development committee, which has completed teaching standards and corresponding rubrics for the system, still has numerous issues to address.

One such issue -- and one of the most worrisome for teachers -- is who will be evaluating staff and determining whether a certain teacher deserves to be paid more. Different evaluators are being considered, including third-party evaluators, and the committee continues to receive input from other school districts that employ similar pay systems, Howell said. The need for fair and objective evaluators remains a top priority.

"We've got to have appropriate (evaluator) training to make sure we have inter-rater reliability," Smith said.

Inter-rater reliability, or as Howell refers to it, collaboration, is achieved when a group of individual evaluators see the same lesson from the same teacher the same way and give it the same grade. At its best, inter-rater reliability removes subjectivity from any evaluation.

"Teachers want to feel they will be given consistent feedback if they are going to be evaluated and compensated based on the plan," Howell said.

Whether inter-rater reliability can be achieved in Steamboat Springs is an issue that bothers many teachers, Smith said.

"That is a concern, especially in a small community like this," he said.

How to implement the system also must be decided before a plan can be taken to teachers and the School Board for a final vote, which the KSBP committee hopes can occur as soon as May.

There is little doubt the evaluation system is a time-consuming one for evaluators and teachers alike. Many teachers remain concerned about the time they will have to spend putting together a portfolio for their evaluation, which is a component of the KSBP standards, Smith said.

"Some people say (time spent working on a portfolio) is time they could be doing other things to be a better teacher," Smith said. What he and other KSBP committee members hope teachers realize is that the portfolio will help their teaching.

Because of the time-consuming nature of the evaluation system, the committee must decide whether it should gradually integrate all teachers into the system over a period of several years or try to evaluate all teachers within the first year or two of the approved system.

"We want to learn from other districts that have been doing it so we can avoid any pitfalls," Howell said. "You have to implement something slowly so you can develop trust and validity with the system. We want to do it right and we want to do it so it works and it's fair."

Other issues remain

Other hurdles yet to be cleared include how to weigh the scoring of teacher evaluations and whether or not to make student performance an integral part of the system -- something at least one School Board member has insisted must be included in the KSBP plan.

Under the current plan, some student performance is taken into account in the portfolio work a teacher must complete, but it is not assessment of performance like some on the School Board want to see.

Despite the questions yet to be addressed by the KSBP system, board and committee members point to the progress that has been made and the work that will continue long after a plan is put to vote.

"It's time-consuming," Smith said. "But everybody's real involved in making it work. If we're going to do it, we have to do it right. Every week we get a little closer."

Teachers are inquisitive about the plan's progress, and many want to see it work, Smith said, although some remain wary.

"There's always skeptics, and it's healthy to have that," Smith said.

The KSBP committee says an ongoing informal pilot will be completed in October and a larger pilot will begin in December in hopes a KSBP plan can be put to a vote next spring.

"This is a journey," Howell said. "But we've got a lot of good pieces in place."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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