Principals union wants Alonso to return bonuses in light of cheating investigations

The Baltimore principals union is calling for schools CEO Andrés Alonso to pay back thousands of dollars in bonuses he received in years that schools were later found to have cheated on state tests.

The request comes as a contract, released through a Public Information Act request, names three schools that have not previously been publicly linked to cheating suspicions: Sinclair Lane Elementary, Rayner Browne Elementary/Middle and William Pinderhughes Elementary. The schools join Abbottston Elementary, alleged to have cheated in 2009, in an independent investigation.

Jimmy Gittings, president of the school system's administrators union, said Alonso's crusade to prove that cheating took place in several schools — particularly in 2008 and 2009 when the city's scores noted historic gains — should compel him to pay back a portion of the $29,000 in annual bonuses he received as test scores rose during those years.

"Dr. Alonso was the only one who saw financial gains when test scores increased in his first two years," said Gittings, who has vehemently opposed Alonso's decision to fire principals if he suspects cheating in their schools. "Now he's trying to prove that cheating took place in his first two years. So he should give back the money he received for those scores. That would be the ethical thing to do."

Alonso declined to comment about the bonuses. But school board President Neil Duke said that in addition to the test scores, other academic factors, including improved graduation and dropout rates, were tied to the bonuses.

"By any objective measure, the district has experienced an upward trajectory under the current administration within the context of academic achievement," Duke said. "No reasonable person would contend otherwise."

Gittings' call comes as 35 Atlanta educators face corruption charges associated with widespread cheating in the district, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who faces theft charges because she collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses for the inflated scores. Investigators say Hall orchestrated the operation through pressure, intimidation and retaliation.

It is also not the first time that a union has demanded Alonso return bonuses. In 2009, the Baltimore Teachers Union called for the schools chief to "do the right thing and forfeit" his bonus in light of dismal financial times, when city teachers and paraprofessionals — which the union called "the individuals who were directly responsible for the rise in test scores" — did not receive pay raises.

In Alonso's five-year tenure, he has confirmed cheating at three schools and has said that 16 other schools are under investigation. The schools chief has spent more than $1 million making high-profile moves to stop cheating in the district.

Most recently, he hired the national data forensic company Caveon Test Security to review thousands of booklets.

Alonso — who has previously called the district's cheating crackdown the most aggressive and transparent in the nation — would not say which schools, or how many, were being investigated when he hired the company in September for $275,000.

But, according to the Caveon contract, the company is investigating the 2008, 2009 and 2010 test booklets of Abbottston, Sinclair Lane, Rayner Browne, and William Pinderhughes.

The school system denied a Public Information Act request from The Baltimore Sun seeking reports outlining the investigations' results, saying that they are personnel records and that their release "would be contrary to the public interest."

Alonso's previous contract — which ran from July 2007 through June 2011 — stipulated that the school board could award "annual performance-based incentive bonuses" up to $30,000 a year: $12,000 for demonstrated increases in schools' academic performance, $12,000 for "management efficiencies" and $6,000 for implementing creative and innovative programs.

Duke said there has been no formal request made to the board to rescind bonuses that Alonso received from 2008 through 2010 — years schools were found to have cheated. Alonso received $29,000 in each of those years.

Among the accomplishments that Duke highlighted when the board awarded Alonso his performance bonus for the 2008-2009 school year was a visit by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Duncan came to Baltimore that year to celebrate the scores of one of the district's success stories: Abbottston Elementary.

One year later, Abbottston's scores plunged by as much as 50 percent in some grades. And in June 2011, Alonso announced that the school, praised by Duncan as a model for the country, had cheated.

The principals union fought the allegations and Alonso's decision to remove the school's administrators. Independent hearing officers hired by the district recommended the school's principal and assistant principal be reinstated after an investigation failed to prove that cheating occurred at the school and that the principals were responsible. The school board has reinstated the principal.

The district's test scores dropped for the first time in 2011, when Alonso sent testing monitors into schools. In July of that year, he signed a new contract, which did not offer performance bonuses.

Duke said the efforts to ferret out cheating "have paid huge dividends by demonstrating that our progress is real. One only need look around the country at school districts that took a different approach to recognize that the path we chose was the right track."

The district is also in the throes of hammering out a test-integrity policy that will govern testing practices and how cheating investigations are conducted.

State regulations require every district to have one, and Baltimore is the only one in the state that does not.

Instead, city school officials said, they have a "plan" that has evolved over time.

"Having a policy is meaningless without a plan," said Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, chief accountability officer for the district. "We have a really strong plan, and now we want to make sure that our work surpasses any administration that's here."

Bell-Ellwanger said there are no repercussions for taking action against educators without a policy in place because the district followed state law. "The policy becomes the accountability measure for Alonso and the board," she said.

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