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Hernando County School Board again reinstates drug-using teacher

BROOKSVILLE — Michael Provost tried to make it clear to School Board members Tuesday night: His life as he knew it was in their hands.

The former Parrott Middle School health and physical education teacher who admitted to smoking marijuana earlier this year said he'd already been publicly humiliated.

His reputation was in tatters, and he faced bankruptcy and the loss of his home. He'd fought to keep his job and came within a signature of a second chance, then blew it by complaining about his new assignment at STAR Education Center.

And, now, he was sorry.

The 38-year-old Provost said Tuesday night he regretted comments he made to the St. Petersburg Times last month after learning about the placement at STAR. He told the Times he thought the district created the physical education position at the district's alternative school to further punish him.

"I spoke in the heat of the moment without thinking," Provost told the board, reading prepared remarks that lasted nearly 10 minutes. "The media got to me before I could get all the facts and think things through. Given the opportunity, I would be honored to work at STAR or anyplace in this district."

Provost, who is married with two young sons and had admitted to smoking marijuana a few times a week and never on campus, apologized to his past students and to STAR's students, staffers and the board.

"Please don't take my house from me, and please don't end my career over this," said Provost, who ran down his achievements as a teacher that included leading two antidrug programs.

"I ask you to please give me the chance to prove myself. I feel like the good things I have done in the district for the last seven years are worth something."

The plea worked. A board that last month indignantly voted to renege on the deal to reinstate Provost and seemed ready to take the matter to court voted 4-1 to support the original offer.

"Personally, I believe you and believe you can make a difference," board member James Yant told Provost before the vote.

Provost's attorney, Mark Herdman of Clearwater, told the board the compromise reached in October — that Provost would pay for random drug screenings for the next three years, get back pay starting from the beginning of the school year and not return to Parrott — was still a good one.

"It made sense then, and it makes sense now," Herdman said.

He reminded board members that an administrative law judge had already recommended the district reinstate Provost. The judge said that firing him for a first offense without giving him the chance to enroll in a drug rehabilitation program would violate the state's drug-free workplace law and the district's own policy. Going back on the deal now would mean a battle in an appeals court that could cost the district "to the tune of $100,000 or so," Herdman said.

During a discussion before Tuesday's vote, however, only Chairman Pat Fagan said he was worried about a protracted legal battle. Board members were more concerned about bringing back a teacher who they said insulted STAR's teachers and students and apparently hadn't learned his lesson. Last month, all but Fagan had voted to go back on the deal.

Board member John Sweeney said he'd come to Tuesday's meeting thinking there was "very little chance" he would change his mind. He asked Provost before the vote Tuesday if he felt he'd been wronged by the district and was satisfied with his answer: "I take responsibility for my actions."

"Though he gave an eloquent rundown of his accomplishments, that one brief statement meant more," Sweeney said.

Only board member Dianne Bonfield, who brought a copy of the Times story to the board meeting last month and who participated in Tuesday's meeting by telephone, refused to change her stance.

"I find that people when put into a situation can certainly recant and can recant very well … almost to the point where it is a wonderful actor doing a wonderful job to try to bring things to culmination so they can receive what they feel is justice," Bonfield said.

Board attorney Paul Carland had told the board the district was within its rights to terminate him, filing an exception to the administrative judge's order on interim superintendent Sonya Jackson's behalf. Jackson stuck to that stance Tuesday but said she was still willing to compromise if the board was.

Board member Sandra Nicholson wavered before the vote, saying even if she was willing to give Provost another chance, she hesitated to put him at STAR.

The only other option is to create a position that's not in the budget or to move another teacher to STAR and give Provost that job, said Heather Martin, executive director of business services. STAR principal John Stratton had sought a physical education teacher for his school long before Provost struck his deal with the board.

Martin said the two men have since talked and Stratton has strategies to deal with the delicate task of bringing Provost into the fold.

"They are going to welcome him," Martin said.

When it came time to vote, Nicholson was the last to push a button on her laptop computer. She paused for a full minute, casting a long glance at Provost. Then she voted in the majority. Provost hung his head and exhaled deeply.

As part of the agreement, Provost will receive back pay from the start of the school year to Nov. 17, the date the board decided to reject the compromise. He could start by the end of the week.

Nicholson told Provost to lead the district's at-risk students by example.

"What I'm expecting of you is that you're going to show these kids that they can get their lives together," she said. "People will give you a second chance if you own up to your mistakes and don't make those mistakes again."

"I can't express my gratitude enough," Provost told the board after the vote, "and I promise you I will carry myself in the proper way."

Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando County School Board again reinstates drug-using teacher 12/09/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 7:36pm]
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