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Hernando school superintendent Alexander's early departure being negotiated

BROOKSVILLE — It was supposed to be a routine meeting. Approve textbook purchases, okay roof repairs at an elementary school, buy some bus parts, bang the gavel.

But by the end of the School Board's regular meeting Tuesday night, it was suddenly unclear whether superintendent Wayne Alexander would be around to see the first day of school on Aug. 24.

On Wednesday, board attorney Paul Carland was negotiating "an arrangement" with Alexander for his early exit, chairwoman Dianne Bonfield said.

"It's basically confidential at this point in time, then we bring it forward to the board," she said.

Bonfield stunned fellow board members at the end of Tuesday's meeting by seeking their support to get Alexander to leave his position "as soon as possible."

Though no official vote was taken, Bonfield got the backing of two of the other four board members — Pat Fagan and James Yant — to direct Carland to meet with Alexander to try to arrange his early departure.

Without any severance, Bonfield said.

"I've lost the faith, trust and the confidence that our CEO, Dr. Alexander, can move the district in the manner in which this board has prescribed," Bonfield said at the meeting.

Alexander's contract ends June 30, 2010. He planned to leave to return to New England to be with his wife and stepchildren who, Alexander has said, are there because of a child visitation dispute.

Bonfield's move gave Fagan and Yant the support they needed to take the course they recommended four months ago. They questioned then whether Alexander had breached his contract by not properly informing the board about his job search in New England and whether he could still effectively lead the district.

"Start fresh," was how Fagan on Wednesday described the advantage of having Alexander leave now.

Still, Bonfield's request came as a surprise, Fagan said.

"I was very shocked that she came out as strongly as she did," Fagan said. "But she let her feelings be known."

The board had just finished discussing a pending lawsuit against the district by two Pasco County teenagers seeking to remain at Nature Coast Technical High School.

District policy forbids non-county residents from attending magnet schools, but officials discovered earlier this year that 20 students had been admitted in recent years, apparently in error. Bonfield had asked for an investigation and said she thought results were supposed to be ready by Tuesday's board meeting.

The board is scheduled to meet behind closed doors Monday morning to discuss a strategy for the lawsuit. A hearing has been scheduled for Tuesday.

Bonfield cited the Nature Coast admissions debacle as one reason for her lack of faith in Alexander, who is beginning his third year with the district.

"I feel strongly that there has not been accountability, and there has not been oversight," she said.

But Bonfield said she was most concerned about the recently proposed changes to the district's grading policy for elementary students.

She expressed frustration that the proposal to eliminate grades of zero for missed assignments and set a minimum F grade of 49 percent for poor work were included among a host of mostly insignificant changes to the district's policy handbook during a June 16 workshop. The board eventually shot down the idea.

Worse, she said, she has been approached in recent weeks by teachers from two different schools who said that administrators already had encouraged a similar approach to grading before the policy proposal even came before the board.

"They said if it wasn't for that policy some of their students wouldn't have passed," she said. "If we don't have students earning equally on a scale that is the same for everyone, what does that say for our school system? And what does it say when that's breached and the board doesn't even know?"

Board member Sandy Nicholson, a staunch defender of Alexander, stuck up for him again Tuesday. But she also expressed concerns that the board might be in the dark.

"What else is out there?" she said.

As Bonfield talked, Alexander sat quietly, frowning, looking down at the dais and taking notes. When the meeting adjourned a few minutes later, Carland looked over at Alexander.

"I guess I'll see you tomorrow," he said.

"Maybe, maybe not," Alexander replied. "I'm feeling kind of sick."

He declined to comment to a reporter after the meeting and did not return calls Wednesday.

Alexander made it to work, though, including a previously scheduled meeting with principals. The grading policy apparently came up, because just before 1 p.m., Alexander sent an e-mail to principals and staff as "a follow-up."

"It is my expectation that the grading policy which is Board approved, be followed without exception," Alexander wrote. "I also expect it to be part of your opening day agenda to be shared with all of your staff and discussed with all of your staff."

Fagan said Wednesday that he'd heard the same rumblings about an informal approval of an alternate grading policy and agreed that Alexander bears the responsibility to inform the board.

"Like (Bonfield) said last night, he's the CEO, and it's his staff," Fagan said. "We need to know what's going on in those areas. "

Alexander's contract gives the board the power to fire him for "misfeasance, malfeasance or corruption in office, incompetency, insubordination, immorality, breach of contract ... substantial deviation from performance standards ... or for any other just cause."

There also is a clause that gives Alexander and the board the ability to reach a mutual agreement for his departure. In that instance, Alexander is guaranteed 30 days before the termination takes effect. Or, the board can agree to pay Alexander for the 30 days and tell him to leave immediately.

Alexander's base salary is $125,545, so a month's pay is about $10,500.

On Wednesday, Bonfield declined to speculate on the board's next move if an agreement with Alexander isn't reached. But when asked after Tuesday's meeting if she would move to fire Alexander for cause if necessary, Bonfield said yes.

"Because I believe there is cause," she said.

A few hours before Bonfield made her announcement at Tuesday's meeting, the board during a workshop approved a time line and search process to have Alexander's successor hired by February and in place July 1.

Fagan and Yant said Wednesday they feel confident in Assistant Superintendent Sonya Jackson's ability to step in during the interim.

"I have no doubt in my mind she can do that," Yant said.

Bonfield said the time line the board approved "is still a good one."

The Hernando Classroom Teachers Association tried to persuade the board to fire Alexander back in April for what they considered to be draconian budget cut proposals and for fostering an environment of nepotism.

The union supports the board's actions now, union president Joe Vitalo said Wednesday.

"Eventually the truth comes out, it just sometimes takes a little longer," Vitalo said.

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

Hernando school superintendent Alexander's early departure being negotiated 08/12/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 12, 2009 8:58pm]

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