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Case shows difficulty of firing incompetent teachers

He was supposed to teach math to struggling students. He was even supposed to mentor some of them.

But Pinellas district officials say John Hopkins Middle School teacher Curtis Brown didn't prepare adequate lesson plans. Didn't teach the assigned subject matter. Didn't use the required teaching software. And didn't improve despite repeated attempts by administrators to help him.

They say he should be fired.

And in a rare ruling, an administrative law judge agrees.

Pinellas proved that Brown, 68, who was suspended without pay last year, was incompetent and insubordinate and should be terminated on those grounds, says the recommended order filed Friday by Judge Jeff B. Clark.

School Board attorney Laurie Dart said the ruling should send an encouraging message to frustrated principals. Many of them say documenting the shortcomings of bad teachers takes too much time and, because of protections built into state law, isn't likely to result in a teacher's removal anyway.

"I hope this case helps administrators realize that their hard work may result in something," Dart said.

Brown, whom former superintendent Clayton Wilcox recommended for firing last May, will remain suspended without pay until the School Board considers Clark's order, probably in March. He was making $41,420 a year.

"The judge only had one option because I did not have proper representation," Brown said in a phone interview. He said his union-assigned lawyer, Mark Herdman of Clearwater, was "inadequate."

Herdman said an appeal was unlikely.

Teachers are rarely fired for poor teaching.

According to state records, Pinellas has fired only two veteran teachers for unsatisfactory performance in the past five years. Hillsborough has fired one; Pasco and Hernando, zero. Herdman said he could recall no other case in which Pinellas has tried to fire a teacher on the more specific grounds of incompetence.

By one expert's estimates, based on surveys of more than 20,000 administrators, 3 to 5 percent of teachers are poor and 13 to 20 percent are marginal.

But Florida law requires that teachers who receive unsatisfactory annual evaluations be given 90 days to improve, along with the help they need to get better. Those targeted for firing after that period then have the right to a hearing, with the districts bearing the burden of proof.

Brown said he taught in Hills­borough for a decade before a run-in with a district administrator led him to Pinellas in 1999. He said he earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from Florida A&M University.

At John Hopkins, he was assigned to teach students who were struggling with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and to be a mentor in a dropout prevention program.

According to court records, Brown got an unflattering evaluation in 2005-2006 and an unsatisfactory rating in 2006-07. Administrators developed a "success plan" for him in fall 2007, then put him on 90-day probation in January 2008 when they didn't see progress.

Brown's personnel file contains a long list of other reprimands and write-ups, including allegations of disparaging remarks toward students and leaving students unsupervised. In 2005, he was suspended for 15 days for reportedly falling asleep in class.

Administrators met with Brown frequently during 2007-08 to discuss his success plan, including a 90-minute meeting in which the assistant principal detailed his expectations for Brown "line by line."

During one formal observation, the assistant principal noted "six of the 16 students were sitting with nothing to do after they had completed their work," the district alleges in court records. During another visit, he found Brown had "a blue tooth headset on his head and was speaking on the telephone instead of working with the students."

Wrote Judge Clark: "Respondent's performance problems were increasing in spite of a concerted effort by the administration to correct the trend."

Herdman, Brown's attorney, argued in court filings that the district could not prove the teacher was incompetent because its evaluation of him was not based primarily on scores from the FCAT or similar tests, which he said state law requires. Other courts have ruled against districts on those grounds, but state lawmakers made statutory changes a few years ago. Pinellas officials said those changes broadened the types of evidence that could be used to prove incompetence.

Herdman also wrote that Brown was not insubordinate because he repeatedly tried to do what his supervisors wanted.

Brown blamed some of his problems on health issues. He also said the former principal at John Hopkins, Maureen Thornton, was out to get him. He said he did not know why.

"You'd have to ask Ms. Thornton that," he said. "I wasn't a troublemaker."

District officials abruptly replaced Thornton and put her on paid administrative leave in December, saying she was the subject of an internal investigation. She did not return a call for comment.

Neither Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, nor interim executive director Bob Husbands could be reached for comment.

Peggy O'Shea, chairwoman of the Pinellas School Board, said she could not comment on Brown's case specifically. But she said she is concerned about the time and energy it takes to remove incompetent teachers — and the effect they have on students in the meantime.

"We would (immediately) remove somebody from a classroom if they were abusing a child," but not if they were incompetent, she said. "It might be unintentional harm on the teachers' part, but the child in a way is harmed."

O'Shea said she would bring the issue to fellow board members during a retreat next month.

Brown is mulling his options. He said he's planning to retire, but might do some tutoring.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Findings

According to the "findings of fact" in the recommended order filed by Administrative Law Judge Jeff B. Clark, Curtis Brown:

• Failed to teach the assigned subject matter

• Failed to complete lesson plans timely and correctly

• Failed to use a particular math teaching software program as required

• Failed to take attendance

• Failed to use the required grading software

• Failed to respond to specific directions to comply "with established policy regarding these areas of teaching responsibility"


Case shows difficulty of firing incompetent teachers 01/29/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 9:18am]
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