It's Christmas in Jan. for HISD

January 28, 2009 3:43:38 PM PST
The Houston Independent School District handed out just over $31 million in bonuses to its employees, not just teachers. Even the bonus for the district's superintendent is higher this year.[SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Like so many businesses, HISD is in the middle of a financial pinch, but on Wednesday it handed out bonuses to high-performing teachers. Eyewitness News went to the district to ask them why.

Blanca Cuellar is one of the many teachers who got a performance bonus, meaning her students tested better this year than they did last year.

"It's exciting to receive the money. You're getting rewarded for your efforts," said Cuellar.

In all, the district awarded $31 million in bonuses. The single highest of which went to Superintendent Abe Saavedra who got $75,000.

"In essence, this is part of the salary program, part of the pay increases for our teachers over a period of time," said Saavedra.

But how can Saavedra justify the bonuses when he admits the district will have the same $1.6 billion budget next year with costs higher than this year?

As far as he's concerned, Saavedra said his year-to-year contract holds him accountable to student performance and with that great risk, comes potential reward.

"What the super does is provide leadership and guidance. A vision and focus for the district and when that leads to great results, and we've had great academic results, a clause in my contract is that the district pays out based on that performance," said Saavedra.

The district's scores on the Texas Academic Knowledge and Skills Test have improved since the bonuses began three years ago.

In reading, they've stayed relatively stable, in the low to mid 80% of students passing the test. In math, they've consistently jumped from 70% in 2006 to 78% in 2008.

And Saavedra said despite financial concerns, the bonuses are needed as part of a regular pay increase for the district's thousands of teachers.

"You don't want to lose any teachers, but you definitely don't want to lose your highest performing teachers," said Saavedra.

It is money that Blanca Cuellar said is helpful regardless of the economy. She did not receive a bonus last year and she said that inspired her to take professional enrichment classes and reevaluate how she teaches. That's exactly why the district said the bonuses should continue.

The district said the bonuses are part of its annual payroll budget. It takes 1% of the available money for raises and allocates it to the highest performing teachers. The bonuses for those in the classrooms range between $2,700 and $8,500.

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