Saturday, June 23, 2018
Education

Troubled Pinellas teacher gets one more chance

Again and again, over 27 years, the English teacher was called in and chewed out. Seven times for being repeatedly late to class. Three times for insubordination. Multiple times for other concerns, including how she calculated and inputted grades.

By last summer, the Pinellas County School District had enough. It moved to fire her.

But Dianne Leone wasn't fired. Instead, she'll report to work at Largo High School today after being suspended without pay for 102 days — which cost her $31,902 in salary — and signing, literally, a "last-chance agreement."

Superintendent John Stewart said that's the best the district could do.

"In the case of what's best for students, the recommendation would be to dismiss," he told the School Board before it voted this month to accept the last-chance agreement. "But in the case of legalities, all persons must be extended their rights. The district did not have a case to move forward with."

Leone, 55, who most recently worked at East Lake High, declined to comment. Her attorney, Mark Herdman of Clearwater, said she is a "capable, competent teacher" whose situation is not worth a story.

Writing about her case is "an attempt to undermine public confidence in public education," he said.

Some might see the Leone case as the latest example of how tough it is to fire a teacher. And some as another example of school administrators failing to follow proper procedure in supervising wayward workers. Either way, what looks like a mountain of evidence in a personnel file can disintegrate in the face of state legal protections for school employees, principals who don't dot every "i" when documenting problems and a teacher evaluation system — now being revamped statewide — that was widely considered to be broken.

Leone began working for the district in August 1984 at Largo High. Six months later, she received her first write-up — a "caution" from the principal for repeated tardiness. She has amassed 15 others since then, even as she earned satisfactory evaluations, district records show.

In 1986, she allegedly left campus for three hours without permission. In 1990, parents demanded she be removed from an English Honors class. In 2002, now at East Lake, a principal wrote her up for not attending open house. In 2008, she was cautioned for allegedly ignoring a directive to change grading procedures. In 2010, she was busted for giving a student a test while the rest of the school was evacuated for a fire drill.

After yet another complaint about tardiness in 2006, Leone blamed traffic jams and differences between her clocks and the school's clocks, according to a memo from an assistant principal.

The same administrator also wrote, "You are a fine teacher in the classroom, but you compromise your effectiveness with this breach of professionalism."

Last July, former superintendent Julie Janssen recommended that Leone, who earns $61,173 a year, be fired. A district investigation cited a series of issues from 2010 and 2011, including allegations that Leone "disparaged one student by mocking her poor performance on the FCAT in front of other students."

Leone requested a hearing before an administrative law judge — her right by state law. She was suspended without pay, effective Aug. 15, pending the outcome.

But the hearing didn't happen. District lawyers decided they did not have a solid case for termination.

The testimony from student witnesses was not as strong as it needed to be, said School Board attorney Jim Robinson. And the fact that Leone had satisfactory evaluations made it tough for the district to make a case for firing.

The district's attorney Laurie Dart said the district would have had a better case if Leone's alleged transgressions were more strongly reflected in her evaluations.

Robinson said the case might have been avoided altogether if, early in Leone's career, administrators had followed the district's policy of "progressive discipline," which requires escalating sanctions — conference to caution to reprimand to suspension — for repeat problems. Despite several threats of heavier penalties, Leone was never reprimanded until November 2010.

Progressive discipline "would have changed her behavior," Robinson said.

In the last-chance agreement, Leone disputes that she intended to disparage a student but agrees she needs to be more careful in what she says to students. It says she agrees to an improvement plan focused on "clear and consistent grading procedures, the consistent and timely grading of student assignments, entry of grades into PORTAL consistently and promptly, and the improvement of communication and professionalism with students and parents."

It says any further policy violations will result in dismissal.

The School Board voted 5-1 for the agreement, with Chairwoman Robin Wikle voting no.

"We should be focused on the students' last chance, not teachers' last chance," she said.

Board member Carol Cook said that in the future, she preferred such last chance agreements happen earlier, but supported it this time. "If we lose the case," she said, "we're back to square one."

Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.

Editor's note: This story was changed to reflect the following correction: Former East Lake High School teacher Dianne Leone returned to teaching Monday at Largo High School. A story Monday gave an incorrect school.

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