LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco County school district's tough stance on criminal background checks for potential employees and contractors is preventing many county residents from doing construction work for the district — even on sites without students.
"We've lost four to five (contractors) a week" because of decades-old convictions that have not been repeated, new construction director John Petrashek told the School Board on Tuesday.
Making matters worse, board member Allen Altman said, these same people — men and women who have been "clean for 20 years, who are law-abiding, taxpaying citizens with kids in our schools … are actively working in every surrounding school district," he said.
"I want clarification that our policy is consistent and fair," Altman said during a workshop on policy revisions.
Other board members shared his stance, and called for more information as they move ahead with rewriting the district rules on criminal background checks. Staff has proposed relaxing the requirements in certain instances.
The district got vigilant on hiring practices when Florida lawmakers adopted the Jessica Lunsford Act in 2005. It began running background checks on everyone working for the district or applying for jobs, including contractors. Many criminal offenses disqualified candidates from employment, as the new law provided.
After a couple of years, lawmakers made it easier for people with past offenses to work for school districts if they never come in contact with students. While other districts relaxed their rules accordingly, Pasco kept its strict policies in the name of safety and security.
That's permissible, said Tom Young, a consultant helping Pasco with its policies. Districts cannot violate the law, but they can set tougher standards. Whether to continue adhering to the more stringent rule falls within the board's purview, Young said.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino wasn't inclined to change directions. She suggested that relaxing the policy, though in line with other districts, could cause a different set of problems for the system.
First, she said, the district no longer has many work sites without students. Its current construction projects are at existing schools with students in attendance, she said, and not new schools that have yet to be opened. Only one site — Sanders Elementary — is slated for work with no students present.
When Altman suggested that plenty of projects take place in the summer, Fiorentino shot back that students attend classes, child care and lunch programs at several campuses during the off months.
Trying to explain to contractors why some employees may work at certain sites but not others could prove a logistical nightmare, she added, asking rhetorically who would police the implementation of a more flexible rule.
"Our children's safety should be the No 1 issue," Fiorentino said.
Employee relations director Kevin Shibley said the district's professional review committee, which considers employment requests from applicants with criminal backgrounds, routinely receives a half dozen files weekly with "significant" histories. Most involve drugs, domestic violence, grand theft or DUI.
Board members said they wanted to have further conversations about this policy before moving ahead with any amendments.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.