School districts have a $100,000 incentive to join the state’s application for $400 million in federal funds — but the strings attached could include linking teacher evaluations and merit pay to how well students perform.

And they have to hurry: The deadline is today.

Twenty districts in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties had signed on to participate in the state’s second application for federal Race to the Top education funds as of Monday.

Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer of the state Department of Education told school superintendents in a May 20 memo that if the state is awarded the $400 million it seeks, the DOE will give each participating district at least $100,000 in addition to any other funds they might receive.

DOE spokesman Alan Guenther said the incentive was offered because some district officials still had questions about just how much money they would get from the grant. The state is eligible for $100 million per year for four years, but half of that money is targeted to schools that receive Title I funding for disadvantaged children, and the rest is managed by the state.

“We wanted to assure all districts that they would see a significant benefit,” Guenther said.

In January, 57 percent, or 378 of the state’s 658 school districts and charter schools, signed a memorandum of understanding for the first round of funding. Just two states, Tennessee and Delaware, received money in that round. New Jersey’s application ranked 18th among 41 submitted.

As of 2 p.m. Monday, 171 districts and charter schools had signed on to participate in the second round, according to a list posted on the DOE website.

Local district teachers unions have also been asked to support the application. Almost no local unions signed on in January after the New Jersey Education Association vocally rejected the application.

The NJEA is taking a softer approach this time and has supported submitting an application. But it has still not supported all of the items in it, especially the section about how to link teacher evaluations to student performance.

“Discussions are still ongoing,” NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said. “We still have some concerns.”

In the memo, Spicer said once the grant money is awarded, committees of stakeholders would meet for at least a year to build a teacher evaluation. Districts would be free to withdraw if they decide they cannot participate after the process concludes. But, she notes, only those districts that have joined in now will be eligible for funds.

Area school district officials said the extra money is an incentive, though not the only criteria they used to decide to sign the required memorandum of understanding.

“We felt like we had more information now,” said Donna Van Horn, superintendent of schools in Weymouth Township, which did not sign on to the first application in January. “And with all the budget cuts, we would be remiss to not at least pursue this. Even an extra $10 wouldn’t hurt right now.”

Guenther said since districts still have the option to back out before funding is distributed, there is no reason not to sign the memorandum to participate.

Galloway Township’s school board voted to sign its agreement at Monday night’s meeting. Superintendent of Schools Douglas Groff said the incentive money was a factor.

“How can you not sign if you might get $100,000?” he said. “But we will still have to look at all the strings that might be attached.”

The deadline for districts to submit the memoranda of understanding to the state is today, though Guenther said the state would continue to accept them through Thursday. The deadline for the DOE to submit the state application is June 1.

According to the DOE list, local districts that have signed include: Absecon, Brigantine, Charter Tech High School, Egg Harbor City, Galloway Township, Galloway Community Charter School, Oceanside Charter School, Somers Point, and Weymouth Township in Atlantic County; Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and Woodbine in Cape May County; Commercial Township, Cumberland Regional, Downe Township, Maurice River Township, Millville and Vineland in Cumberland County; and Barnegat and Little Egg Harbor townships in southern Ocean County.

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