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Pinellas school custodian gets 29th chance to improve job performance

LARGO — Scott Long's personnel file is littered with complaints. A teacher said the 20-year custodian took a month to mount a pencil sharpener. Another employee said he took too long to change some light bulbs.

His bosses wrote him up, too — 28 times, in fact, for everything from excessive tardiness to problems with "initiative."

Enough to get him fired?

Not in the Pinellas County School District.

On Tuesday, the School Board gave him one more chance, voting 6-1 that Long, 41, be demoted.

The reason? A district policy known as "progressive discipline."

Most of Long's 28 write-ups were "conference summaries" — among the lightest punishments. And progressive discipline requires that employees be given steadily heavier penalties, except in the most egregious cases.

Board member Robin Wikle was the lone dissenter. It's a "problem in itself that we can write that many referrals (on an employee) and not go to the next step," she said.

Long, who was earning $40,488 a year, was suspended June 17 without pay as head plant operator at Fairmount Park Elementary in St. Petersburg.

He declined to comment Tuesday, although he did talk about his case last week.

District officials acknowledged his case should have been addressed years ago. Superintendent Julie Janssen, who recommended Long be demoted, said it pointed out a need for the district to better track disciplinary and performance problems.

Complaints about Long came at three different schools, under many different principals, assistant principals and supervisors.

It's not clear his bosses knew they were citing him for problems already identified at other schools.

If they had known, they more likely would have handed out sterner punishments earlier or referred his case to headquarters for a full-blown review, Janssen said.

"I'm thinking we need a way to tag all these incidents into one file so you can see it," she said. "It could be that we make it an online process."

Long's file would take a long time to scan. According to the district, it contains 20 conference summaries, three directive memos, two cautions and three reprimands. Twelve of them came between 1991 and 1999 — when he worked at two other schools — but none between Jan. 18, 2005 and Feb. 4, 2009.

"I really like you personally, but I have issue with how dirty I see this campus becoming in only its first year," says a note from a teacher. "I try to pick up paper and trash when I see it, but I would like to see you doing the same."

Here and there, Long also receives compliments. "I don't want to crucify this guy," wrote Karen Moseley, the previous principal at Fairmount Park, in an e-mail to district officials. "He does help us out in a lot of ways."

Earlier this year, a district investigation concluded that among other problems, Long "failed to properly supervise the plant operations team at the school, resulting in concerns over the cleanliness of the school."

After Long initially refused a demotion, Janssen recommended he be fired. Long then requested a hearing, which was scheduled for next week. He later agreed to a settlement, accepting the demotion but waiving his right to a hearing.

That's what the board approved Tuesday.

Last week, Long said he was the victim of a racially motivated principal and a "crooked" district. "I basically got the shaft," he said.

Despite the incidents listed in his file, he said he had never been disciplined in the district until principal Sharon Wilson joined Fairmount Park last December. "All of a sudden she comes on board, and I got all 'needs improvements' (on evaluations). Basically she didn't like me."

When asked why, Long said, "I think it's more a racial issue."

Long is white. Wilson is black.

Wilson said she could not comment about employee issues. She said she is not racist.

Long said he had no choice but to settle, having already spent $11,000 on legal expenses.

Long's demotion to plant operator will cost him about $11,000 a year in salary and benefits.

"That's a punishment," said board member Linda Lerner. And it's appropriate "because there really wasn't progressive discipline used here."

Long will start fresh at a new school: Seventy-Fourth Street Elementary in St. Petersburg.

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

FAST FACTS

From Scott Long's personnel file

In March 2003, a teacher at Fairmount Park Elementary said it took Long more than a month to mount a pencil sharpener. "There have been numerous other times I've asked for little things & he never does it."

In January 2003, Fairmount Park principal Angelean Bing tells Scott that he failed to perform a list of tasks she gave him over the winter break. "You were here during this period, and in fact, you turned (in) an overtime sheet for 62 hours. However, you did not complete the list of tasks. When asked the reason for the tasks not being completed, you replied that you did 'other stuff.' "

In February 2002, a supervisor tells Long there was glass on the sidewalk and a dead cat near the bus ramp when students arrived. "It is imperative that you perform a morning campus walk around before the students arrive," he wrote.

Pinellas school custodian gets 29th chance to improve job performance 12/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 11:31pm]

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