The Bend-La Pine school district is prepared to spend about $100,000 on bonuses for educators, but union opposition to merit pay may prevent the payouts.

Bend Education Association President Mark Molner said he appreciates the district’s motivation, but fears the slippery slope of letting general fund money be used for incentive-based pay.

It’s a principled stand, but one that flies in the face of the best interests of the Bend-La Pine district as well as a growing movement in education.

Two separate types of payments are involved in the dispute, one from a federal grant and the other from the school district’s own funds.

The district is getting ready to make payments from the federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) to educators from 18 of its 27 schools. The disputed payments from the district’s own general fund would give some compensation to educators at the nine schools not included in the federal program. Without an OK from the union, the district says it could face an unfair labor practices complaint.

The TIF project has provided funds for planning and collaboration, as well as development of the Value Added Method (VAM) of judging the district’s success. The VAM attempts to give an accurate measure of a school’s success by adjusting scores to compensate for more than two dozen factors such as such as poverty, special education, English-language learners, talented and gifted students, attendance rate and race.

Incentive payments are based on the performance of the whole school, and educators in schools with better VAM scores get larger payouts. Payments range as high as $4,242, but educators in schools with the lowest scores can get nothing. Some schools in the project are assigned to the control group and get a flat percentage. The union has not objected to those payments, because they result from a federal study that brings other significant benefits to the district, said Molner.

But the nine schools not included in the study because of federal requirements get nothing from the TIF program, and resentment has been high about the resulting inequity.

Trying to address that concern, the district came up with the idea of making payments from its own funds to educators in those nine schools based on their VAM scores. For the union, that amounts to merit pay, which it strongly opposes. The union wouldn’t object if VAM scores weren’t considered, but the district says that violates the whole notion behind the TIF project that created the issue.

Ironically, the union and district agree on some of the limits of the VAM. Superintendent Ron Wilkinson said it’s just one more lens for evaluating schools, and he thinks it may prove to have more value on a schoolwide basis than for judging individual teachers.

The bottom line, however, in Oregon and across the nation, is the need to identify and reward great teachers. Many believe that requires using student achievement to evaluate teachers, and that paying the best teachers more makes sense. Unions, however, are in firm resistance. VAM may not be the final answer, but the notion that teachers can’t or shouldn’t be judged and rewarded won’t hold up.