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Drug-using Hernando County teacher balks at STAR Center role

BROOKSVILLE — Mike Provost opened the envelope and his heart sank.

The former Parrott Middle School health and physical education teacher who admitted earlier this year to smoking marijuana won the fight with the school district to keep his job with the district. He knew he wouldn't be returning to Parrott, but the letter mailed to his home this week contained his new assignment.

He wasn't happy.

Provost, 37, is to be placed in a new physical education teaching position at the STAR Education Center in Brooksville.

The alternative school for grades 6-12 is for students with behavior issues. For some, the school off Broad Street is the last chance to shape up before expulsion. By all accounts, it's a challenging place for teachers.

To Provost, the assignment is a way for the district to punish him and maybe get rid of him for good.

"They did that to force me out again," Provost said. "They want me to go there, work with the most difficult students there are in hopes I quit."

Not so, said Heather Martin, the district's executive director of business services.

Provost is certified to teach health and physical education. STAR's principal, John Stratton, had already lobbied the district for the PE and health position. Up until now, teachers from other schools have come to fill in.

"That's where the opening is," Martin said. "Otherwise, the district would have to spend another $57,000 to create a teaching position that doesn't exist, or we ask a person who didn't do anything wrong to transfer out of their job and into STAR. I don't think it's fair to ask the board to do either one of those things."

Provost admitted in March to using marijuana after being confronted by school administrators, who'd received a tip from a woman claiming that she'd witnessed Provost smoking the drug at his home.

Provost, who'd led antidrug programs at the school, said he only smoked off campus on a recreational basis and never came to work under the influence. He agreed to enroll in the district's employment assistance plan.

Then-superintendent Wayne Alexander recommended his termination.

Provost appealed and got a hearing in June. In September, an administrative law judge recommended the School Board reinstate Provost, who has been on unpaid suspension since March, and pay him back wages and benefits. The board did not have legal grounds to fire Provost because state statutes and the district's personnel policy prohibit termination for a first positive drug test and Provost had voluntarily sought help, the judge wrote in the recommendation.

School Board attorney Paul Carland said the judge had misinterpreted case law and recommended that the board follow interim superintendent Sonya Jackson's direction to fire Provost anyway.

The board reached a consensus on a compromise. Provost would be placed in a health or physical education instructional position at another school this year and would receive back pay from the start of the current school year.

He must undergo a formal drug evaluation and follow whatever recommendations are made by health professionals. He also agreed to submit to — and pay for — random drug tests for the next three years.

The agreement is up for final approval on Tuesday. Provost's back pay amounts to about $12,000, according to a memo to the School Board.

The pact said nothing about an alternative school, Provost said.

"That's not what we agreed to," he said.

"It is what the agreement was," Martin countered. "He has a job. The agreement was at somewhere other than Parrott."

Provost tried through his attorney this week to insert a stipulation in the deal that would have him work at STAR through the end of this year but require the district to place him in the next available position at another school after that.

"I'm the whipping boy of the district," he said. "No principal is going to hire me unless it's mandated."

His attorney, Mark Herdman of Clearwater, did not return a call from the Times.

On Friday, Provost said that effort had failed and he had come to accept his assignment. It takes a special kind of teacher to work at STAR, he said, and acknowledged that he's had success with troubled students in the past.

Provost said he won't insert his own experience into the lesson plan on drug use, but he knows he needs to be prepared to talk about it with students.

"I think it will end up happening, not out of choice but out of necessity. They're going to know, and they're going to confront me with it, and I need to be candid about it," he said.

As for his future, Provost was candid.

"I'm going to go there and do my best to do a good job," he said, "and hopefully get transferred out."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Drug-using Hernando County teacher balks at STAR Center role 11/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 6:37pm]
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