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Published: Thursday, 3/24/2011

Teachers, TPS to meet over Race to Top dispute

$10.8M in U.S. funds at risk for Toledo


Pecko Pecko
Toledo Public Schools leaders and teachers union officials will meet with a mediator Monday to try to resolve a dispute that imperils millions of dollars of federal funding for the district.

Francine Lawrence, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, notified the Ohio Department of Education in a letter dated March 15 that the union is withdrawing from the Race to the Top program. The federal program, aimed at reforming schools, would pump $10.8 million into the Toledo district.

Ms. Lawrence's action froze money allocated for the district, education department officials said, and failure to resolve the dispute would mean the money would be allocated to other Ohio school districts.

The two sides will meet with Michael Sawyers, assistant state superintendent who oversees reforms and strategies for Race to the Top.

Ms. Lawrence based the withdrawal letter on correspondence sent by TPS superintendent Jerome Pecko dated March 7, in which he informed union members that the district plans to cancel six programs next school year, including all supplemental contracts, the Toledo Plan, and the Teacher Review and Compensation System.

In her letter, Ms. Lawrence said that if the district tried to keep the funding, the union would sue in federal court to have the money returned to the state.

She wrote that Mr. Pecko did not contact her or explain his decisions.

School board president Bob Vasquez said Ms. Lawrence did not notify district leaders of her intent to withdraw from the federal program or bring to them her concerns.

"Just to do this and surprise us with this, I really question the motives of it," Mr. Vasquez said.

District officials countered Ms. Lawrence's claims Wednesday at a meeting with The Blade's editorial board. They said they have full intentions to develop replacement programs with teachers, and that the notice was given only because of contractual requirements.

Members of a teacher and administration panel have been developing reforms in the district to meet Race to the Top guidelines for months, Mr. Pecko said, and commitments have been made to bring the programs back in new, revised forms.

"It would be difficult for us to believe" that those teachers didn't inform Ms. Lawrence of the discussions, TPS Treasurer Dan Romano said.

The Toledo Plan and the teacher review and compensation program cost $600,000 a year, and the district can't afford to use general fund dollars to pay for them, Mr. Pecko said. The plan was to shift the programs to federal funding. Now, district officials said, the loss of Race to the Top funding could also jeopardize future federal grants and state improvement grants and would cut the district's transformation plan at the knees.

"The plan, as it currently is, would cease to exist," Mr. Pecko said.

Ms. Lawrence put the onus squarely on Mr. Pecko's shoulders Wednesday, saying there is nothing in union contracts requiring Mr. Pecko to cancel the programs when he did. She said the superintendent didn't need to end the programs to modify them.

"He didn't have to cancel the programs before negotiations began," she said.

"That simply isn't standard protocol."

Ms. Lawrence said her actions were not a negotiations ploy, but were a reaction to the cancellations.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: nrosenkrans@theblade.com or 419-724-6086.

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