Suspended teacher's complaints prompt Hernando School Board to reject deal to reinstate him
BROOKSVILLE – Citing his gripes about his new assignment, the Hernando School Board has rejected an agreement to reinstate a teacher who’d been suspended for drug use.
All five board members during Tuesday’s regular meeting expressed disgust for Michael Provost’s comments published Saturday in a regional edition of the St. Petersburg Times. Provost told a reporter he felt the district was trying to force him to quit by placing him at the STAR Education Center, the district’s alternative school in Brooksville for students with behavioral issues.
“This is the height of arrogance as far as I’m concerned,” board member Dianne Bonfield said as she waved a copy of the Hernando Times. “Had we wanted to force him out, the board would not have come up with this agreement.”
“Those kids need every positive help they can get,” board member Sandra Nicholson said. “For someone to go into that site with a negative attitude, it’s not what’s best for our students.”
Provost, formerly a health and physical education teacher at Parrott Middle School in Brooksville, was suspended without pay in March after admitting to occasionally smoking marijuana off campus. Provost, who sponsored the school’s anti-drug club, said he never came to work under the influence.
He appealed after the district tried to fire him. An administrative law judge found that the state’s drug-free workplace law prohibited the district from firing Provost on a first offense and that he had the right to enroll in the employee assistance program. Provost had enrolled immediately after being confronted by school officials acting on a tip from someone who said she’d witnessed him smoking the drug. The judge recommended that Provost be reinstated and given back pay.
School Board attorney Paul Carland and interim superintendent Sonya Jackson disagreed with the judge’s legal interpretation, which is not binding on the district, and recommended that the board fire Provost anyway.
Had the board done that, Provost could have taken the matter to appeals court.
The board agreed to bring Provost back and pay him from the start of this school year on conditions that he not return to Parrott and that he pay for random drug tests for three years.
Provost, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, received his assignment to STAR last week. He told the Times then that the district had intentionally placed him with a difficult student population to force him out and that the agreement said nothing about placement at an alternative school.
That is the only position currently open, countered district officials, who noted the agreement only stated that he would be assigned to a school other than Parrott.
Provost tried through his attorney to add a stipulation to his agreement requiring the district to place him at the next available opening for next school year. That failed, and Provost ultimately agreed to the assignment. He was quoted by the Times saying he planned to do the best he could at STAR and hope for a transfer.
Before the vote Tuesday night, Carland told the board that rejecting the deal would likely mean bringing Provost and his attorney back before the board for another hearing.
“Mr. Provost needs to understand it’s a privilege to teach in this district, at any school,” board member John Sweeney said.
Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, tried to explain Provost’s comments, saying the teacher talked to a reporter before getting a full explanation for the assignment.
“He had thought it was a created position to dump” him at STAR, Vitalo told the board.
Chairman Pat Fagan was the lone dissenter in the 4-1 vote. Fagan agreed the comments were inappropriate but said he worried that a judge had already recommended Provost’s reinstatement and that a protracted legal battle would cost the district more money.
“Sometimes you have to spend a little bit of money for principle,” Bonfield replied.
After the meeting, Vitalo said both sides needed to cool off and let logic prevail.
“Everyone is running on emotion, not facts,” he said.
--Tony Marrero, Times staff