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Best & Brightest Bonus Program Again Under Fire, This Time From A Class Action Suit

J Pat Carter
AP Photo

A class action lawsuit against the Florida Department of Education claims teachers weren’t fully paid bonuses they were promised. The state’s embattled Best & Brightest bonus program is once again under fire.

Former Central Florida teacher Chris Alianello qualified for the Best & Brightest bonus two years in a row, starting in 2017. Best and Brightest bonuses are meant to reward performance benchmarks. They were first enacted in 2015.

The first year he qualified, Alianello should have received $6,000, and the second year $7,200. Instead, the first bonus was $426 short, and the second $511 shy of the amount promised. Alianello says before becoming a teacher he worked in finance – which led him to question the bonus he received.

“With my finance background and some tax education, to me it did not seem to make sense at all, and I started thinking about the fact that they’re doing this to tens or hundreds of teachers around Florida as well,” Alienello told reporters Monday.

Alienello found money was being deducted from his bonus for payroll taxes usually paid by employers. He brought his concerns to the Morgan & Morgan law firm, which filed a class action lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court Monday on his behalf.

Ryan Morgan is representing Alienello in the case.

“The state improperly authorized school districts to artificially reduce the amount of bonuses paid to teachers under the Best & Brightest program, to account for employer-tied taxes and other payroll expenses, normally borne by employers,” Morgan said.

Those employer taxes being deducted from bonuses include Social Security and Medicare taxes, as well as unemployment compensation insurance.

Alianello’s counsel estimates more than 100,000 teachers had their bonuses shorted by school districts at DOE’s instruction. The attorney estimates that could account for 25 to $30 million dollars in shorted bonuses.

Reached for comment Monday, the Department of Education says it will not comment on pending litigation.

Statewide teachers’ union the Florida Education Association is applauding the suit and ripping the Best and Brightest bonus program as having failed its goal of recruiting and retaining teachers.