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Hernando teaching jobs are saved

Retired teacher Jo Ann Hartge joins a standing ovation Tuesday after tearing up her intended speech at the Hernando County School Board meeting. Hartge’s remarks were superseded by a surprise School Board decision to backtrack on a plan to cut teaching and staff positions.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Retired teacher Jo Ann Hartge joins a standing ovation Tuesday after tearing up her intended speech at the Hernando County School Board meeting. Hartge’s remarks were superseded by a surprise School Board decision to backtrack on a plan to cut teaching and staff positions.

BROOKSVILLE

In an abrupt reversal Tuesday night, the Hernando County School Board voted to withdraw a cost cutting plan that had put around 200 teaching and staff jobs in jeopardy.

"It seems to me as though there was unfairness, inequity and the perception of favoritism in the way those annual (employees) were given pink slips," said Chairwoman Dianne Bonfield, as dozens of teachers union members looked on.

The move threw into question Superintendent Wayne Alexander's controversial efforts to cut $16 million from the district budget in anticipation of a state funding shortfall and it capped a fiery day in which two board members called for his firing over a job search they said violated his contract.

The Hernando Classroom Teachers Association union had also sought Alexander's firing over implementation of the cost cutting plan, saying he had ignored recent state and federal funding projections and played favorites in choosing non-tenured teachers for non-reappointments.

But with the board's decision Tuesday, those calls fell by the wayside.

It's well worth letting teachers keep jobs for now," said member Pat Fagan. "This summer if something happens (to state funding) it's a different story.

It wasn't immediately clear which teachers or staff would stay or which would go. Officials said they would stand by their aim of removing at least 80 teachers who had been pink-slipped for poor performance.

Alexander agreed to meet with the union to discuss the criteria for deciding which teachers can keep their jobs.

"We need to talk, and figure out a way to bring people back," said HCTA president Joe Vitalo.

At an afternoon meeting, both board member James Yant and Fagan had called for Alexander's dismissal, saying he violated his contract by failing to notify the board he's in the running for a Massachusetts superintendent's job.

"It's the time to make change and go forward with a new superintendent so we can proceed as a district," Fagan said.

But a majority of the five-member board said they didn't think Alexander did anything to violate his contract, which expires in June 2010, simply because the Brockton Public Schools have selected him as a finalist for a position, which starts in August.

Bonfield said she believed Alexander would seek to negotiate for a year's delay if he were to win the job in Massachusetts.

"Their starting time, he's going to have to negotiate that with Brockton," she said. "I feel now that he's going to be here until June 30, 2010 or until mutual agreement."

Under the terms of his contract, Alexander must notify board members in writing of "any efforts to seek other employment," including sending out resumes or letters of interest. Failure to do so constitutes a violation, and the board can terminate Alexander's contract without paying severance.

Alexander briefly resigned in February, after word leaked out that he was a candidate to lead the Framingham, Mass. school system. He said he was leaving due to a custody battle involving his new wife and children in Connecticut.

He later reversed himself, saying he would finish his contract in Hernando.

Fagan and Yant said Alexander never told them he was still a candidate for current job openings.

In his comments Tuesday, Alexander gave an emotional defense of his less than two-year tenure in Hernando, saying he remains committed to the district despite the family problems that have compelled him to begin seeking work in New England.

He said he was "tired and overwhelmed" by news coverage of his job hunt, and remained dedicated to improving the Hernando schools.

"(The media) continue to feed the drama and melee with each and every article and the comments they invite," he said. "I'm tired of the teachers' union using my search as a manipulative tool to get what they want.

"I do not feel I have violated my contract," Alexander said. "If you feel I have, dismiss me, (but) I have no plans of quitting or resigning.

"You were informed of my search for jobs in New England," he added. "If you feel I have mis-communicated in some way, then we need to revisit this topic. I have every intention of completing my contractual agreement. I will not leave my position until you find my replacement."

Earlier, board member Sandra Nicholson said she had spoken with Alexander privately and gotten assurances he was committed to finishing his contract.

"It's going to be next to impossible for him to get a job up there, because he's said he'll honor his contract," she said. "My understanding is he has told (Brockton.)"

But Patti Joyce, chairwoman of the superintendent screening committee in Brockton and a member of the School Board there, said her district wants a superintendent this summer. And she said Alexander made it clear to her committee that he wanted the job.

"If he didn't want the position, why would he come up here and interview for it?" she asked. "Of course he was enthusiastic about it."

Fagan and Yant also opposed a move by Nicholson to put Alexander's annual contract evaluation behind closed doors, with each board member meeting with the superintendent and holding the evaluation confidential. The board previously has conducted such sessions in public.

After a discussion, Bonfield sided with them, saying the evaluation should remain public.

"We don't have anything to hide," she said. "I don't have any reason not to proceed as usual."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Hernando teaching jobs are saved 04/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 21, 2009 10:21pm]
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