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Hernando School Board refuses reinstatement deal with teacher Michael Provost

BROOKSVILLE — Citing his public gripes about his new assignment, the Hernando School Board rejected an agreement to reinstate a middle school teacher who'd been suspended for drug use.

All five board members during Tuesday's regular meeting expressed disgust for Michael Provost's comments published Saturday in the St. Petersburg Times.

Provost told a reporter he felt the district was trying to force him to quit by placing him at the STAR Education Center, the district's alternative school in Brooksville for students with behavioral issues.

"This is the height of arrogance as far as I'm concerned," board member Dianne Bonfield said as she waved a copy of the newspaper. "Had we wanted to force him out, the board would not have come up with this agreement. What message is he sending to the students he's going to teach, to the principal, to the teachers, to us as a School Board?"

"Those kids need every positive help they can get," vice chairwoman Sandra Nicholson said. "For someone to go into that site with a negative attitude, it's not what's best for our students."

Neither Provost nor his attorney, Mark Herdman of Clearwater, attended Tuesday night's meeting.

Herdman was out of the office Wednesday and did not return a call for comment.

Reached Wednesday, Provost offered two words: "No comment."

The former health and physical education teacher at Parrott Middle in Brooksville was suspended without pay in March after admitting to occasionally smoking marijuana off campus. Provost, who sponsored the school's antidrug club, said he never came to work under the influence.

He appealed after the district tried to fire him. An administrative law judge found that the state's drug-free workplace law and the district's own policy prohibited termination on a first offense and that he had the right to enroll in the employee assistance program.

Provost did so immediately after being confronted by school officials acting on a tip from a woman who said she'd witnessed him smoking marijuana. The judge recommended that Provost be reinstated and given back pay.

School Board attorney Paul Carland and interim superintendent Sonya Jackson disagreed with the judge's legal interpretation, which is not binding on the district, and recommended that the board fire Provost. Had the board done so, Provost could have taken the matter to appeals court.

The board instead agreed last month to bring Provost back and pay him from the start of this school year on condition that he not return to Parrott and that he pay for random drug tests for three years.

Provost received his assignment to STAR last week. He told the Times he felt the district had intentionally placed him with a difficult student population to force him out. He said the agreement said nothing about placement at an alternative school.

District officials countered that the STAR job is the only position currently open. They noted the deal stated only that he would be assigned to a school other than Parrott.

Provost tried through his attorney to add a stipulation to his agreement requiring the district to place him at the next available opening for next school year. That failed, and Provost ultimately agreed to the assignment. He was quoted in Saturday's story saying he planned to do the best he could at STAR and hope for a transfer.

Before the vote Tuesday night, Carland said rejecting the deal would likely mean bringing Provost and his attorney before the board for another hearing.

"The board has to in some way resolve the case," Carland said.

"Mr. Provost needs to understand it's a privilege to teach in this district, at any school," board member John Sweeney said. "I think he's at least broken the spirit of the agreement already and apparently hasn't learned his lesson."

Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, tried to explain Provost's comments, telling the board that the teacher talked to a reporter before getting a full explanation for the assignment.

"He had thought it was a created position to dump" him at STAR, Vitalo said.

Chairman Pat Fagan was the lone supporter of the agreement in the 1-4 vote. Fagan said he agreed that Provost's comments were inappropriate but worried that a judge had already recommended the teacher's reinstatement. A protracted legal battle would cost the district more money, Fagan said.

"Sometimes you have to spend a little bit of money for principle," Bonfield replied.

Carland on Wednesday said he'd spoken to Herdman, who said he was planning to consult with Provost.

"Obviously they want to get it back to the board as quickly as possible," Carland said.

The law has its own time line. An agreement between the two parties must be reached within 90 days from the judge's recommended order. That order came Sept. 9. Both parties have to agree to an extension, Carland said.

After the meeting, Vitalo said both sides needed to cool off and let logic prevail.

"Everyone is running on emotion, not facts," he said.

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

Hernando School Board refuses reinstatement deal with teacher Michael Provost 11/18/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 6:49pm]
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