Viability of merit pay divides members of Mehlville board

Fedorchak seeks to discuss merit pay in closed session

By Gloria Lloyd

With a final committee report on merit pay due in a few months, the Mehlville Board of Education is divided on whether performance pay can work in the district.

At a work session on the board’s philosophy on merit pay, President Mark Stoner and board member Elaine Powers, the board’s representatives on the compensation review, or merit-pay, committee, asked for some guidance from the full board on how to proceed. The committee is slated to meet at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10, in the Bernard Middle School Library, 1054 Forder Road.

After the district’s attorney found that a bonus-pay system would be illegal under Missouri law, the committee is still examining its initial questions of how a merit-pay system could be designed and how it could compensate teachers.

The issue of merit pay could factor into this year’s negotiations with the Mehlville National Education Association, or MNEA, which agreed to study merit pay as an option in exchange for a roughly 5-percent pay increase over two years when it signed a two-year memorandum of understanding, or MOU, last year.

In anticipation of those upcoming talks, board member Ron Fedorchak said he preferred to discuss any topic related to merit pay, including the board’s philosophy on it, in closed session. Board member Larry Felton seconded Fedorchak’s motion to discuss merit pay in closed session, but the board voted to discuss the topic in open session, with only Fedorchak opposed.

However, negotiations with the MNEA should not be affected by the prospect of merit pay since teachers and the board already agreed to study the issue through the MOU, Stoner said.

With a final report due by March 1 under the terms of the MOU, the merit-pay committee has run into some roadblocks, including the district attorney’s opinion that its foremost idea — bonus pay — is illegal under Missouri law, Powers noted.

With strict bonuses off the table, one of the ideas that came out of the brainstorming at the committee’s Nov. 19 meeting included the possibility of seeking bids for an expert to help develop a system that the district could test through a trial, she said. The district could not just take a performance-pay model from a company and try to use it in classrooms, she added, so the committee and board would need more specialized expertise.

Switching from a pay system based on longevity to one based on performance would be difficult, Stoner said, but he believes in the end the district would be better for it and it would maximize the district’s budget, 85 percent of which goes to paying employee salaries and benefits.

“I think competition works — I know the superintendent (Eric Knost) disagrees with me on that,” board Secretary Rich Franz said. “I want the Mehlville School District to send a message that we’re interested in employing the best people, that are not only the best but will continue to strive to do that. I don’t believe the current strategy sends that message.”

Knost offered his opinion as an educator, noting that he takes personal responsibility for teacher performance in Mehlville, where “complacency is taboo” under his leadership.

“I don’t think competition works in the education space. I don’t think there’s any proof that it can work in the education space, and furthermore, I don’t think it’s needed,” he said. “I think we do have the best employees, and I think they continue to strive to be better, and they want to be better, and they’re saying, ‘You don’t need to give me a big bonus to make me better.'”

Knost noted that the board aligns with President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on merit pay. In 2009, Duncan said performance pay for teachers would be his highest priority while in office, but merit-pay systems are still rare across the country.

The district’s Performance-Based Evaluation Tool, or PBTE, was not designed as a system for performance pay. With an end goal of improving student performance, principals and administrators examine how a teacher teaches, assessing them across 50 criteria on a four-rating scale from “distinguished” to “unsatisfactory.”

Fedorchak questioned the fairness of any teacher evaluation system where some administrators could grade tougher than others and teachers interact with different groups of students.

“How do you evaluate a PE teacher? How do you evaluate the strings teacher?” he said. “They don’t touch every kid.”

Private industry is better-suited to performance pay since profits are a natural tool for evaluating employees, Felton said, citing his years under a performance-pay system in the software industry as an example of how companies measure performance.

“You can measure behavior, but effect is much more difficult. You don’t have a profit motive, it’s not finite,” he said. “All you have is a finished product, which is a child that’s learning. So I think that, from a philosophical point of view, we have to be very careful — we’ve got a solution here. Do we have a problem to fit it in?”

Performance pay can work for governments and is rooted in compensation systems pioneered by the federal government in the 1960s, Stoner noted. He added that locally, the St. Louis County Library system has merit pay for its employees.