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Decades of complaints about Pinellas teacher surprise School Board members

Pinellas County School Board members offered strong words Monday about a veteran teacher who has sparked constant complaints and demands from parents that their kids be removed from her class.

A St. Petersburg Times story detailed how Maria Raysses-Whipple, a Dunedin High English teacher, has been repeatedly scrutinized and admonished since she began teaching in the district 33 years ago. She is now under investigation for undisclosed reasons.

"She should have been let go a long time ago," said board member Robin Wikle. If the parent complaints are true, "imagine the learning opportunities that were missed over 30 years. That was my first thought. And we let it go on for 30 years."

Again and again, students and parents accused Whipple of botching grades, belittling kids and stonewalling on parent conferences. Fellow educators also accused her of being emotionally abusive, according to a review of her personnel file.

Despite the past problems, the district put Whipple back in the classroom at Dunedin High in 2008, 11 years after she agreed to stop teaching at East Lake High and move to a nonclassroom job.

A fresh wave of parent complaints began within two weeks. Last year she started the school year with at least 130 students and ended with fewer than 50.

"If I had known that there was this kind of history … I would have said, 'No, don't put this person back in the classroom,' " said board member Janet Clark.

The board approves personnel moves based on the superintendent's recommendation.

Superintendent Julie Janssen's response Monday: Whipple was "gone from the classroom for 10, 12 years," she said. "You can't predict that her behaviors haven't changed."

Janssen said she could not comment in detail because of the pending investigation. It began in October, but has been on hold since Whipple went on medical leave Jan. 24.

Whipple says the complaints arise because she sets high standards for students and won't "capitulate" to parents.

"I don't know how adults allow young people to manipulate and control them. That's a lot of what's going on today, all in the effort to maintain peace. It's very sad," Whipple, 60, told the Times for a story that appeared in Monday's paper.

She also said: "I've done my very best and taught old school, and been this old-school person, and it hasn't meshed particularly well with our culture."

District officials said budget cuts led them to nix Whipple's nonclassroom position and find her a new job somewhere. Her contract required the district to do so, Janssen said, or face a grievance that "we'd probably lose."

Clark said the situation frustrated her because while it's a rare case, it gives ammo to lawmakers and others who want to undermine teacher tenure. Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill last week that does just that.

"This is the typical passing the buck that I know has gone in the district," Clark said. "Instead of people standing up and saying this teacher needs to go and doing the paperwork … they passed them on to somebody else."

She said principals in particular were to blame.

"The principal should have had the testicular fortitude to say, 'This is it, one more time, you're out of here,' " Clark said. "It's not tenure. It's laziness. Laziness on the part of the administrators."

But Paul Summa, Dunedin's principal until he retired last summer, noted principals can't fire a teacher. It's up to the district Office of Professional Standards, which investigates employee conduct and makes recommendations.

In Whipple's case, Summa said he documented a stack of problems and frequently complained about her to OPS. He said he was told, again and again: Keep documenting.

"It's like, is this merry-go-round ever going to stop?" he said. "It never gets to a point where you can just go ahead and say, 'You know what? You got to go.' "

Board members Terry Krassner and Linda Lerner said they will seek more information about the case from Janssen. If there were well-founded problems, there should not have been a problem correcting the issue or firing the teacher, Krassner said.

"I know there's a process we can use," said Krassner, a former principal. "They shouldn't be there if they're not doing justice by our students."

Other factors may have played a role in Whipple's persistence.

Time and again, the Pinellas teachers union came to Whipple's defense. Longtime executive director Jade Moore, who died in 2008, signed a 1984 legal agreement with the district that routed Whipple away from elementary education and down a new path as a high school teacher. His name surfaces in Whipple's personnel file at least five times.

Told of Moore's interventions, union president Kim Black said she couldn't speak for him. But, she added, "Isn't that his job? To make sure a teacher's due process is upheld?"

Wikle said there is a "level of fear" in the district about getting sued if a teacher is fired. Under Florida law, teachers can request a hearing before an administrative law judge to challenge termination. And in many cases, those judges do in fact side with the teacher.

Wikle also said the district has a culture that believes in giving employees multiple chances, just like it does for students. But "I don't believe we need to give our employees third and fourth chances at the expense of our students," she said.

Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Decades of complaints about Pinellas teacher surprise School Board members 03/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 12:27am]
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