Checkered past doesn't close classroom doors for Pinellas teacher Jason Pafundi

He was reprimanded for sleeping in class. He resigned after allegedly stealing yearbook money. And after being given an extraordinary second chance, he was banned from working at a high school because the principal found him unreliable.

Despite a checkered past, Jason Pafundi, 31, landed another full-time teaching gig in Pinellas this month — this time as a 12th-grade English teacher at Palm Harbor University High, one of the district's most prestigious schools.

He has done an "excellent job" as a substitute teacher for the past three months, the school's new principal, Christen Tonry, wrote in May.

Pafundi has powerful allies. His father is a high-ranking administrator in the school district's human resources department. His mother is the teachers' union representative at Palm Harbor University High.

Two years ago, both parents pleaded with then-superintendent Clayton Wilcox and other top-ranking officials to give their son another shot. The officials did, despite strong objections from the head of human resources.

Without his family ties, Pafundi probably would not be working for the district, Wilcox said.

Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, said Monday he told Jason Pafundi and his mother — both union members — that "they have no obligation to speak with you."

Jason Pafundi did not return calls and e-mails for comment. Neither did his mother.

"We have nothing to say to you," his father, Ted Pafundi, wrote in an e-mail Monday.

• • •

Jason Pafundi began teaching in 2003, after graduating from the University of Florida. His first stop: Tarpon Springs High. His first evaluation: mediocre.

In fall 2004, Pafundi headed to Lakewood High in St. Petersburg to teach 10th-grade English.

His stint was short and rocky.

In October, Pafundi was reprimanded after an assistant principal found students playing cards and Pafundi "slumped in a chair," apparently asleep. He was also written up after a female student complained that Pafundi encouraged boys to sing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" to annoy her.

A month later, district officials began investigating Pafundi for new issues: complaints about his personal website and "fraudulent reports" tied to Pafundi's claims of being too sick to work. At the time, Pafundi was working as a sports freelancer for the St. Petersburg Times.

Meanwhile, a bigger inquiry was under way — into accusations that Pafundi was stealing money he collected for yearbooks. He was overseeing their publication.

On Nov. 29, he resigned.

Nine months later, Pafundi was charged with scheming to defraud, a third-degree felony. He pleaded not guilty. The charge was reduced to petit theft, a first-degree misdemeanor. In March 2007, the case was dismissed after Pafundi completed a pretrial intervention program.

His father wrote a check to Lakewood for $2,475.

• • •

In 2008, Pafundi's mother e-mailed Wilcox.

Could the district remove the "no-rehire" code put on her son's file so he could be considered for work in Pasco or Hillsborough counties, wrote Barbara Pafundi. He was not asking to return to Pinellas, she said.

"Jason has paid a terrible price for his lack of good judgment. But should that be a burden he carries the rest of his life? When is enough enough?"

Wilcox sent a note to Ron Stone, then the associate superintendent of human resources. "Can we grant this request … and provide a neutral reference to other districts … ," he wrote.

Stone said no.

"His performance as a teacher and his creation of a website that was highly questionable indicate that he should not be in front of students," he wrote.

That wasn't the end of it.

On May 27 — one of his last days in office — Wilcox sent Stone another e-mail. Ted Pafundi, the director of risk management and insurance, had stopped in to talk about his son's employment opportunities.

"My understanding is that Jason has been working in a private school situation for the last three years and has conducted himself well," Wilcox wrote. "Perhaps that time 'served' could be used in evaluating his employment with this district, should he apply."

On June 16, Ted Pafundi made a pitch in writing to Stone.

On Aug. 6, Jason Pafundi did likewise.

"I am seeking a second chance and am hopeful that this district will provide me that opportunity," he wrote.

Records appear to show Stone ultimately signed off on the change. But Stone, who retired last fall, said he doesn't recall changing his mind. If records reflect that, he said, it happened because Wilcox directed him.

Wilcox said he doesn't recall ordering anyone to do anything.

Pafundi's parents' connections meant the district took a closer look at the case than it may have otherwise, he said. But the decision to remove the no-rehire code was justified, Wilcox said. "Wouldn't you want your superintendent of schools to say, 'Are you sure we're doing the right thing here?' " he said.

School Board attorney Jim Robinson said board policy doesn't prohibit former employees from being considered for rehiring, except in cases involving especially egregious crimes. Pafundi's issues don't rise to that level, Robinson said.

That's a different question than whether he should be rehired, he said.

• • •

Given a second chance in August 2008, Pafundi returned to the district as a substitute teacher. Two months later: another complaint.

"I would like to request that Mr. Jason Pafundi not substitute at Seminole High School again, effective today," Seminole High principal Walter Weller asked human resources.

On two occasions, he continued, Pafundi canceled on commitments. It left the school — and teachers who had to cover for him — in a lurch, Weller said.

"You do that to me twice, you won't get a chance to do it a third time," he said last week.

In February of this year, Pafundi was subbing at Palm Harbor University High when then-principal Herman "Doc" Allen contacted district headquarters about allegations that Pafundi asked a female student to join his Facebook page.

A case report doesn't say whether the allegation was substantiated. Allen, who retired this summer, did not return calls.

Pafundi's Facebook page includes a link to his personal website, the same site that raised concerns in 2004.

Under a section called "My Brief History," which appears to mix fact and fiction, the site references drug use, a "menage-a-trois" with two women and a former UF roommate who "wasn't used to wearing clothes, since he didn't in Africa, and would spend the better part of his dorm room time totally naked."

The site also includes an Aug. 23 post about returning to teaching: "Those of you really close to me know how big of a deal this is and how hard I've worked to get back to this point."

• • •

A code put on Pafundi's file in 2008 recommends that those looking to hire him review it.

In a brief interview Friday, Christen Tonry, Palm Harbor's new principal, said she reviewed the file in a phone call with the head of professional standards and was comfortable hiring Pafundi.

Tonry abruptly ended the interview, saying she would call back. She did not.

District spokeswoman Andrea Zahn said Pafundi was hired March 1 as a long-term substitute teacher at Palm Harbor. The position, open because of a retirement, was advertised from Feb. 1-5 as being "only for second semester."

Three people, including Pafundi, applied. The two others didn't meet hiring criteria, Zahn said.

This summer, Pafundi transitioned from a substitute into a full-time teacher on annual contract. His salary is $37,314.

The full-time slot was not advertised, but Zahn said such moves are not unusual.

Pafundi lacks a professional teaching certificate in Florida, which isn't unusual for new teachers. He applied for one April 15.

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

Checkered past doesn't close classroom doors for Pinellas teacher Jason Pafundi 08/31/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 31, 2010 12:37am]

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