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Funding opportunity faces tight timeline, controversy

One of the thorniest issues among Minnesota educators has suddenly resurfaced in Red Wing as school officials look to a new funding opportunity.

Red Wing School Board members learned Monday of a proposal could tether Gov. Tim Pawlenty's pay-for-performance plan to hundreds of millions in federal dollars.

But if board members are to position themselves for the funding, they'll have to decide quickly.

That prospect left at least one board member troubled.

"I am disturbed by the process," School Board member Dennis Porter said.

Under the proposal, Minnesota school districts would have to decide by Jan. 19 whether to enroll in Q Comp, a voluntary teacher program that gives districts access to additional funding. Among its components is a pay-for-performance requirement based on teacher evaluations.

The state would then submit its application for a federal Race to the Top grant. Supt. Stan Slessor said up to 15 states could be approved for the grant, which awards a total of $4.35 billion.

Only districts that enroll in Q Comp would be able to access the federal funding, Slessor said. He said schools opting for Q Comp would begin the program in 2012.

The district would have to negotiate such an effort with the teachers union.

State officials have asked districts to sign a memorandum of understanding by Jan. 13 to indicate likely support. Slessor said districts can step away from the program after Jan. 13, but could not sign on after that date.

School Board members did act on the item Monday.

Slessor said up to 40 states could apply for the grant and that Department of Education officials are confident Minnesota will be selected.

"They are investing heavily in this because they think they've got a real good shot," Slessor said, adding that at least 50 percent of the funding must go to local districts.

He said Minnesota stands to receive up to $200 million if chosen, adding that indications are the funds could be awarded by spring 2010. Participating districts would see 75 percent of new funding from Q Comp and about 25 percent from the federal program,

But the proposal "does come with some stress," Slessor noted.

State teachers union officials have encouraged local leaders to oppose the proposal.

Education Minnesota Red Wing President Kirby Hanson said the learning curve on Q Comp would be too steep for most teachers to make an informed decision by the deadline.

"I wouldn't even know where to start convincing people," he said.

Still, he said union is willing to look at the proposal.

"We haven't told anybody no," he said.

The district can submit an application without the union's blessing, Slessor said.

Hanson joined Slessor and Instructional Services Director Kathy Radmer at a three-hour Race to the Top seminar last week.

That the proposal commits districts to Q Comp, Hanson said, is concerning.

"Programs that encourage excellence in teaching are always worth looking at," he said. "The problem comes with inconsistent ways of evaluating staff."

Evaluation at the district "is a problem right now and would a problem especially if money is attached to it," Hanson said.

School Board members are expected to hear more details on Race to the Top at their Jan. 4 meeting.