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Pinellas rethinks hiring of man with well-connected parents

A teacher who once resigned for allegedly stealing yearbook money — and whose parents helped win him a second chance — won't continue working a new job at Palm Harbor University High School.

Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen said principal Kristen Tonry decided on Tuesday to pull her recommendation that Jason Pafundi be hired — the same day a story about him appeared in the St. Petersburg Times.

The recommendation had not yet gone to the School Board, which usually approves such moves without question.

"It's been a major campus disruption the last day, and she said she really believed this was the right thing for her to do at this time," said Janssen, who supports the move.

The superintendent said the district has notified Pafundi. The change is effective immediately.

"That's kind of a relief," said J.D. Cattel, co-chair of Palm Harbor's school advisory council. "We don't need these kinds of distractions."

Neither Pafundi nor Tonry have returned calls for comment.

Pafundi, 31, began work this month as a 12th-grade English teacher despite a troubled past. Among other issues: a reprimand for falling asleep in class at Lakewood High and being banned from working as a substitute teacher at Seminole High.

In 2005, Pafundi was charged with scheming to defraud over allegedly stealing yearbook money at Lakewood. The charge was later reduced to petit theft, and the case was dismissed in 2007 after Pafundi pleaded guilty and completed a pretrial intervention program.

In 2008, his parents — Ted Pafundi, a high-ranking district administrator, and Barbara Pafundi, the teachers union representative at Palm Harbor University High — successfully persuaded former superintendent Clayton Wilcox and other top officials to give him a second chance. It was then that the district removed a "no rehire" code on Jason Pafundi's file, which allowed him to again be considered for district jobs.

Last spring, Pafundi was the only qualified applicant to apply for a long-term substitute teacher position at Palm Harbor. This summer, he transitioned into a full-time position that was not advertised.

"That's insane," said Palm Harbor parent Kim Miller, who had planned to lobby School Board members to remove Pafundi. "His parents want to give him a second chance or a third chance, that's all right. But I don't feel that's right with my child there."

Pafundi's record "brings cause for great concern," said School Board member Nina Hayden. "If someone continues to have issues, then that's a clear sign that that person is not capable of the job."

Asked if she would have hired Pafundi, Janssen said she couldn't say because she had not seen his teaching performance. But, she added, in cases where teachers have issues "there would have to be a compelling reason directly related to how amazing they were in the classroom."

School Board member Robin Wikle said while she had issues with Pafundi's hiring, she trusted the principal made a decision based on what's best for the school.

But Wikle said the episode raises bigger questions about district hiring and firing.

"I see some real concerns on a bigger level with inadequacies in (human resources)," she said. "How many chances do we give? When do we say enough is enough? That's what we need to establish."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas rethinks hiring of man with well-connected parents 08/31/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 31, 2010 11:25pm]
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