Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Schooled in Excess

The Florida School Recognition Program was supposed to be the gem in Gov. Jeb Bush’s plan to bring accountability to Florida’s troubled schools.

By assigning grades to every school, then doling out money to those that scored an A or showed improvement, Bush planned to use cash as leverage to coax the best performance out of schools.

But the reality of the Florida School Recognition Program is that millions of taxpayers dollars have been squandered on unlawful purchases or spent in ways that have little to do with a child’s education.

Dozens of schools around the state either misunderstood or ignored the spending restrictions placed on the $306 million that has been handed out since 1999.

Instead of computers, they bought lawn mowers. Instead of new teachers, they hired BoJo the Clown to host a “fun day.”

Throughout its existence, the program that was designed to hold schools accountable for student performance has had little accountability of its own.

If the state had been tracking the recognition money the way it monitors some other education funds, it might have been able to stop schools from spending millions on unlawful purchases.

The Herald-Tribune uncovered the spending violations and the lack of state oversight during a 14-month investigation that began last March. The inquiry involved a review of more than 10,000 pages of documents stemming from public information requests made to about 1,500 schools that received recognition money in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Based on financial information from the 890 schools that replied, the Herald-Tribune developed projections of how the money was spent by all schools since the program began.

That projection shows that at least $9 million has gone to student rewards and equipment purchases not used for day-to-day teaching — items not permitted under state law.

Schools have spent enough recognition money on pizza parties, lawn mowers and other unlawful purchases to hire six teachers in every school district or buy 9,000 laptop computers.

Even some of the legal purchases raise questions about whether the program is helping students, or just the people who work around them. About $50 million has been spent on bonuses for school employees who aren’t classroom teachers, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians.

Like lottery winners drunk on free money, parents and teachers with good intentions came up with bizarre ways to spend the cash.

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