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Race to the Top raises questions locally
Dyer aims to ease concerns about federal funds for schools
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Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer is reviewing the state’s winning Race to the Top application, and she thinks the school district will be just fine.

After last week’s announcement that the state will spread out $400 million in federal money to improve schools, she’s received some unusual and harsh comments on the district website.

“There are two strains, and they’re both along the lines of federal control,” she said. “One person continues to say that by accepting the funds, I’m ‘advancing the liberal socialist agenda’ ... and the other asks if we’re setting up something we can’t continue to fund.”

Dyer fielded questions left and right since last week, so she took time to sit down with the 200-page document. She said she’s feeling more sure about it than she was before, and she thinks Gainesville City Schools is already on the way to achieving the goals.

“The application uses words such as ‘pilot, field test, implement, give feedback,’ and it shows we’re the test group for the first part of the grant,” Dyer said of the 26 Georgia school districts that supported the state’s Race to the Top application.

“There are no negative consequences by being the test group. We’ll be doing it first, giving input and getting the money. Everyone will have to develop this plan eventually.”

Under the U.S. Department of Education’s Blueprint for Excellence, a committee set out goals to prepare for the reauthorization of the Elementary Secondary Education Act, essentially updating the No Child Left Behind standards set in 2001.

“If you go back to where the goals were born, a bipartisan committee set this up,” she said. “The goals are not going away, even if we have a change in president. How we carry them out and how the federal government approves them, however, may change.”

Under the four-year grant of $400 million, half will be used by the state to develop a longitudinal data system to track students throughout their education, create new state tests and implement new teacher and leader evaluation systems. The other half will be divided among the 26 districts to get started, and Gainesville City Schools is already on the road to completing the goals.

“We’re already implementing these strategies, and Georgia is going this way,” Dyer said. “Those who are willing to be first are awarded the funding. To participate was never in question because we want to be on the train with the funding, not dragging behind.”

The money is certainly helpful.

“Even in good times, we would have made the same decision, but since we are struggling, it made this even more critical,” she said. “Sitting and looking at the budget for next year, with cuts included, we would lose 20 to 30 positions. This will help us.”

The money must be applied toward the specific goals — standards and assessment, data systems that support instruction, “great” teachers and leaders and turning around the lowest-achieving schools — so Dyer will be able to pay academic coaches, counselors and technology specialists who will lose funding when stimulus money runs out next year.

“It’s important for all of us to remember that we don’t add on or create more positions or requirements,” she said. “Rather, we take what we have and examine the people who would advance our goals. That’ll change the way we do business, and it won’t cost more when Race to the Top funds end in four years.”

Many teachers are worried about certain sections of the application, such as merit pay based on test scores and anonymous peer evaluations. Dyer isn’t as concerned about those parts as she first was.

“Under pay for performance, the wording states that existing teachers will be able to opt into the old system,” she explained. “Local districts will have the opportunity to have a voice in how it’s set up and we determine the other measures of performance beyond test scores, which can include surveys, advanced degrees and performance assessments.”

The Race to the Top requirements will roll out slowly, and Dyer is breathing a sigh of relief. Gainesville City Schools is on the right path, and now she hopes to answer any misconceptions parents and teachers are hearing about the finances, pacing and setup of the grant.

“Why would we not accept this?” she said. “We have nothing to lose, and we’re going to have to do it anyway. We’ve done these changes for years and done them well, so why turn down the money that could be our lifeline?”