Mehlville merit-pay committee running into some roadblocks

Slated to meet Tuesday at Bernard

By Gloria Lloyd

The committee looking at implementing merit pay in the Mehlville School District must present a report by March with a plan, but it is running into some roadblocks.

The committee is slated to meet at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19, in the Bernard Middle School Library, 1054 Forder Road, where Assistant Superintendent Lisa Counts and Human Resources Director Mark Catalana will present potential prototypes of merit-pay structures.

However, Superintendent Eric Knost reported to the Mehlville Board of Education this fall that the district’s attorney, Charles Elbert of Kohn, Shands, Elbert, Gianoulakis & Giljum, LLP, believes merit-pay bonuses for public employees appear to be unconstitutional in Missouri.

“The concept of what we’re talking about, of taking what is done in one year and compensating differently in the following year is, in his opinion, illegal,” Knost said, since the terms of a contract cannot be changed after it is signed.

Board member Elaine Powers voted against accepting the agenda of the Nov. 7 Board of Education meeting because it did not include her requested discussion on the composition of the compensation review, or merit pay, committee, to which she and board President Mark Stoner were appointed last year.

“If I’m representing the board on that committee, I feel I should have some direction from the board,” Powers told the Call. “We are at a little bit of a crossroads where we had gone down one path, investigated one option, and it was problematic for legal reasons.

“So we need to decide as a committee, and with direction from the board, how much more effort we want to put into that to take it down some different paths perhaps. So there’s been some discussion, and I can’t predict where it’s going to land.”

It became clear at their last meeting that the members of the merit-pay committee have starkly different views on what the outcomes from merit pay should be, Powers said.

Some of the committee’s members object to the committee still considering the issue of merit pay at all, she added.

When Stoner said he was unsure if the current compensation review committee would be able to agree on any compromise in relation to merit pay, board Secretary Rich Franz suggested reorganizing the committee with different membership.

The committee is primarily comprised of teachers, plus administrators, and must submit a final report and recommendation for the 2014-2015 school year, due by March 1 under the terms of a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with the Mehlville National Education Association.

The MOU was approved in May 2012 by the Board of Education with a 5-2 vote.

Then-board President Venki Palamand and board member Ron Fedorchak were opposed.

Stoner and Franz support a merit-based compensation plan for teachers.

“They didn’t get a merit plan, but they got a commitment to develop it, and they exchanged that for two step increases over the next two years,” Fedorchak said when the MOU was approved.

Following last month’s meeting, Franz asked if there was any agreement among the committee that merit pay would not be a bonus, but instead a way to “make the current pay structure more, I guess I would say, sensitive to the accomplishments of our teachers.”

“I’m not sure there’s agreement on that,” Powers noted.

“I would say there’s probably some conflict in that area,” Stoner agreed.

One potential route to merit pay Elbert outlined could involve setting rates that teachers would be paid in advance if they meet designated benchmarks in performance and writing that stipulation into the teacher’s contract in advance.

In Elbert’s opinion, that could still open up the district to litigation, however, Knost added.

“I think Charles is saying … it’s just illegal to give a bonus to a public employee,” he said. “And that’s just a surface-level way to look at it, but he would argue that it’s much deeper than that.

“And it’s very hard to write something in that isn’t going to be construed, or misconstrued, as a bonus.”

In response to concerns from Stoner that teachers in the district are only evaluated every three years, Counts gave a presentation at the board’s October meeting about the district’s Performance-Based Teacher Evaluation, or PBTE, program.

Although the minimum requirement for teacher evaluation is once every three years, Knost said his staff uses a “360-degree concept” of continuous evaluation on 50 criteria.

Staff developed the system by looking at the best practices of model school districts across the nation, Counts noted.

With an end goal of improving student performance, principals and administrators are often in classrooms looking at how a teacher teaches, assessing them on a four-rating scale from “distinguished” to “unsatisfactory.”

An evaluator can add comments and ratings to a password-protected online document that serves as a continuous evaluation for each teacher.

If a teacher is unsatisfactory and makes no improvement, he or she can be terminated, Counts said. Mehlville does not assign a bottom-line rating or score to the teacher, however.

In response to board questions about why teachers are not assigned an evaluation score or level, Knost said that the district intentionally does not want to label teachers to emphasize that even its top-rated teachers may still need improvement in some areas.