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Area school districts consider Q-Comp

State teacher program seen by administrators as an additional source of funding during lean times.

A slew of area school districts are eyeing Q-Comp, Minnesota's voluntary teacher merit pay program, as a rare source of additional funding in these lean times.

Moorhead administrators plan to broach the subject with its teachers union during negotiations this summer. Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton invited a Department of Education rep to introduce the program to staff this week.

Q-Comp, a collaborative approach to improving teaching, has gained praise, and the extra $260 per pupil participating districts can land held new appeal as the state froze school funding.

Pelican Rapids Superintendent Deb Wanek puts it, "For most superintendents, any money hanging out there is pretty attractive these days."

But doubts about Q-Comp persist.

Teachers at local districts, including Pelican Rapids, Perham and Frazee-Vergas, rebuffed the program - as state legislators parried an attempt by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to make it mandatory. Both teachers and politicians point out that the three-year-old program hasn't yet resulted in tangible student gains.

About 70 school districts and charter schools - none of them in this region - participate in the program. They have flexibility in designing their own plans, but generally Q-Comp does away with traditional seniority-based pay and instead rewards teachers for meeting a variety of student improvement and staff development goals. The program has teachers mentoring, advising and evaluating each other.

Pat King, director of school improvement at the Minnesota Department of Education, told the D-G-F staff a younger generation of teachers is eager to get recognition from their peers and climb the pay ladder faster: "It's not about teachers going into each other's classrooms and thinking, 'I'm going to catch so-and-so doing something.'"

Moorhead Superintendent Lynne Kovash says her district is already taking Q-Comp's teacher-driven approach to staff growth: mentoring for new teachers, professional learning communities and teacher coaches. But with a leaner staff and tighter budget next school year, it will be harder to keep these helpful features going.

If the district joins Q-Comp in 2010, Kovash said, "It would be the only extra funding we would have coming in."

A report by the legislative auditor's office this spring said most districts joined Q-Comp to get the added money, $190 from the state and $70 districts can levy. The report also found no evidence yet that

Q-Comp improves student achievement.

A Star Tribune analysis of 22 participating districts titled "Is it 'merit pay' if nearly all teachers get it?" found 99 percent of teachers in the districts landed raises even as test scores didn't edge up.

In Frazee this spring, teachers, who have to approve the program, overwhelmingly rejected it. Theresa Fett, head of the local teachers group, cited a number of concerns: State funding for the program might dry up. Staff development and paperwork might take too much time away from the classroom. And the teachers union, which is working to mend a strained relationship with the administration, has some qualms about administrators making calls on merit pay.

"We want to help our district out, but we're just not in the right place to consider this," said Fett, adding that her group will look into

Q-Comp again next year.

In Pelican Rapids, the teachers group gave Q-Comp the thumbs down this spring, citing lack of solid evidence it works and concerns it would overextend a staff whittled down by layoffs in recent years, Wanek said.

Moorhead and D-G-F have until Oct. 1 to apply if they decide to join Q-Comp in 2010. D-G-F Superintendent Randy Bruer said he'll let staff members make up their minds: "We all have to really believe in it and be on the same page."