Saturday, February 24, 2018
Education

Hillsborough schools now less open on employee discipline

TAMPA — It used to be easy for the public to find out which of the Hillsborough County School District's 25,000 employees were in trouble.

The district had been posting names of workers who were up for suspension or termination on the School Board's online agenda. With a simple record request, anyone could read letters that laid out the district's case against the public employees.

No more.

By a 5-2 vote, the board decided Tuesday it will return to a more discreet way of policing its workforce. Members will get the names shortly before their meetings. Nothing will be posted online.

Member Doretha Edgecomb, who made the motion, said she is trying to protect the privacy and dignity of employees who have not yet exhausted all the steps of due process.

"I'd like to think that we are compassionate enough and sensitive enough to think about this in a bigger way, and still be legal and still be transparent," she said.

Member Candy Olson agreed.

"It's tough to be a teacher in this day and age," she said. "We want to have some compassion and respect for their privacy."

The current system began last year, not long after the Tampa Bay Times pointed out that the Pasco and Pinellas county districts are more transparent.

In both counties, the names of employees facing dismissal or suspension are published with a copy of the agenda, a few days before the school boards meet.

Pinellas includes substantial public information about the employees, including the actions that got them in trouble, the district's rationale for imposing discipline and a statement by the employee. Pasco officials provide additional information on each disciplinary case upon request.

Alison Steele, a First Amendment lawyer who represents the Times, said the law does not compel Hillsborough to be as open as the other districts.

But it does protect the public's right to public records, and she considers the Hillsborough board's action a move in the opposite direction.

"They want to do the public's business in private," she said. "That's not how we do it here."

The discussion and vote happened in response to a flurry of publicity about Ingrid Peavy, a Pierce Middle School teacher who was suspended because a disabled child left the school in October and walked 6 miles home.

Supporters have spoken out on her behalf, some in the news media and others individually to board members.

Aron Zions, who teaches at Pierce with Peavy, told the board Tuesday that the same child failed to show up for his class on numerous occasions. "We had no chance to stop this," Zions said. "There but for the grace of God goes me."

At that point, school district attorney Tom Gonzalez warned the board members to be careful not to discuss the case or listen to possibly incorrect information. If the district moves to terminate Peavy, and she exercises her right to a hearing, members will have to sit as impartial decisionmakers, he said.

"I'm very concerned that the speakers today have done a great disservice to the teacher in question," he said.

Not long afterward, Edgecomb made her motion. Members Cindy Stuart and Susan Valdes cast the two dissenting votes. Stuart asked for a full investigation of the Pierce matter.

Steele disagreed strongly with the idea that omitting the names will protect the workers.

"It limits the ability of people who may be able to come forward for those people who are wrongly accused," she said. "That should be a huge concern to the school district, the board, other teachers and the community."

The public also is not served by a policy that makes it more difficult for the media to cover school discipline cases, she said.

"People have lives. They count on newspapers as their surrogates," she said.

After the meeting, Gonzalez said it is still possible for news reporters to ask the district, a few days before each board meeting, for the names of employees who are up for disciplinary actions.

That information is public even if there is no list, he said. So are the investigative files, once the district decides to move forward.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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