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To fire, or not to fire



The Pinellas school board delved into that question Wednesday, prompted by the recent resignation of a maintenance worker accused of bid rigging.

Superintendent Julie Janssen recommended in December that the board fire Alan Smith, a 13-year employee who allegedly manipulated the district's bid process to award 46 playground mulching jobs - each worth more than $6,000 - to a single company. The board was scheduled to take action at its Jan. 12 meeting, but Smith submitted a letter of resignation on Jan. 2.

At least one board member, Robin Wikle, still wanted the district to fire him. "This is probably why I'm not going to be in politics very long," she said at Wednesday's board workshop. "He'd be tarred and feathered and fired nine months ago."

The district began investigating Smith a year ago, and removed both he and another employee from their job duties about that time, Superintendent Julie Janssen told board members. The state attorney's office is still investigating. "The reason we didn't bring it forward sooner is because it was turned over to the state attorney's office and we were asked not to because it would mess up their investigation," Janssen said.

School board attorney Jim Robinson cautioned that if the board moves to fire an employee rather than accept a resignation, they risk having the employee going to an administrative hearing and keeping his or her job. "When this topic came up, my thought was, you're an employer. And the key interest for you in such a situation, in my mind, is to sever the employment relationship," he said. "What you don't want is to end up with an employee that you feel is guilty of a fireable offense, but the ALJ (administrative law judge) disagrees. And now you're stuck. My view is, if somebody hands you a resignation, snatch it."

Some board members worried, though, that the public might think the district was letting a questionable employee off easy. Or that the district was missing an opportunity to tell its workers that bad behavior will be rooted out and exposed. Firing "would send a clear message that we're not going to put up with people" like that, Wikle told The Gradebook.

Board member Carol Cook said the board agenda packet should at least include more information, if warranted, about an employee who resigns - such as whether or not there is or was an investigation underway. That way, "not only has the board had it triggered in their head and know what's going on but also the public is hearing, 'yes, they're allowed to resign' " but there are extenuating circumstances.

Janssen agreed to include that information. But Robinson again cautioned that it has to be handled on a case by case basis.

An employee under investigation or in hot water might might decide to "roll the dice" on an administrative hearing rather than be "vilified publicly" with a statement that board members envision, he said. So in some cases, he suggested, it would be better to accept the resignation than to risk losing a hearing and "be stuck for 20 years with somebody we could have been rid of."

UPDATE AT 4:31 P.M.: Robinson told The Gradebook in an email this afternoon that the district "always indicates if a resignation is accepted in lieu of continued investigation or in lieu of termination." He said the post "makes it sound as though the district might agree not to disclose even that much in order to induce an employee to resign, which is not true, and not what I said."

It was certainly not my intent to convey that impression, but I think I did. It may have helped if I had included Carol Cook's remarks in full, which may have put Robinson's response remarks in clearer context. Cook said this: "If it's in the consent agenda, and they ask to resign, is it appropriate to say that this employee has resigned under investigation, or has resigned as a result of a year-long investigation ... and just go ahead and state a paragraph of what has happened so not only has the board had it triggered in their head and know what's going on but also the public is hearing yes they're allowed to resign but they're not resigning and getting off scot free."

I think from that comment and other statements during the discussion that Cook was suggesting the inclusion of additional information beyond just "resigned in lieu of termination." I think Robinson's subsequent remarks address the potential pitfalls of including that something more.

I hope this makes things clearer. I apologize for any confusion.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:50am]


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