Wednesday, December 13, 2017
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.

Comments
Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2017 is ‘Feminism’

Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2017 is ‘Feminism’

NEW YORK — This may or may not come as a surprise: Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2017 is "feminism." Yes, it’s been a big year or two or 100 for the word. In 2017, lookups for feminism increased 70 percent over 2016 on Mer...
Published: 12/12/17
‘It’s like an insane nightmare’: Parents question private company hired to drive special needs kids to school

‘It’s like an insane nightmare’: Parents question private company hired to drive special needs kids to school

RIVERVIEW — As a foster parent with two sons of her own, Kayla Storey has learned all the tricks to get her kids out of bed and off to school every morning. But this year, Storey says she’s the one waking up every school day with a knot i...
Published: 12/08/17
Updated: 12/11/17

University of Central Florida Greeks won’t hold social events, serve alcohol for 6 weeks this spring

ORLANDO — University of Central Florida fraternities and sororities won’t host social activities or any events with drinking for at least the first six weeks of the spring semester, up from the two-week ban on alcohol that has been in place in the pa...
Published: 12/08/17
Amid reports of rapes, beatings, cover-ups, grand jury to probe juvenile justice abuses

Amid reports of rapes, beatings, cover-ups, grand jury to probe juvenile justice abuses

Disturbed by stories about the rape of teens by supervisory staff, a pandemic of sometimes savage force, brutal beatdowns ordered by youth care workers and policies that permit the hiring of violent offenders, Miami-Dade’s state attorney wants to kno...
Published: 12/07/17
Henderson: Some basic facts about Hillsborough’s teacher pay imbroglio

Henderson: Some basic facts about Hillsborough’s teacher pay imbroglio

Hillsborough County’s public school teachers are horn-honking, voice-raising, sign-waving, foot-stomping mad, and I can’t blame them. They are paying for a problem they didn’t create. About one-third of the workforce was expecting to receive a $4,000...
Published: 12/07/17
In Watershed Ambassadors Program, Pasco students learn about natural Florida

In Watershed Ambassadors Program, Pasco students learn about natural Florida

SPRING HILL — On a small wooden dock at the Cross Bar Ranch, Cynthia Brinker gingerly pokes through the trappings in her fishing net, plucking out a tiny creature to examine close up. "What the heck is this?" the Weightman Middle School studen...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17
Crognale named 2018 Hernando Principal of the Year

Crognale named 2018 Hernando Principal of the Year

BROOKSVILLE — For just a year and a half, Steve Crognale has been the principal at the Endeavor and Discovery Academies. But now, he’s been named the Hernando School District Principal of the Year for 2018. Endeavor serves students, most of them hig...
Published: 12/06/17
‘It’s like an insane nightmare’: Parents question private company hired to drive special needs kids to school

‘It’s like an insane nightmare’: Parents question private company hired to drive special needs kids to school

RIVERVIEW — As a foster parent with two sons of her own, Kayla Storey is skilled at calming first-day-of-school jitters. But this school year, Storey says she’s the one waking up every weekday with a knot in her stomach.It’s been there ever since th...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/11/17
Why do universities handle sexual assault cases, anyway?

Why do universities handle sexual assault cases, anyway?

News stories about campus sexual assault often get the question, "Why do schools handle these cases, anyway?"Readers often wonder how universities got tasked with handling these convoluted cases in the first place. Where, they ask, do the police come...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/11/17
Hillsborough teachers keep the heat on after $92 bonus offer

Hillsborough teachers keep the heat on after $92 bonus offer

TAMPA — The second Hillsborough County School Board meeting in less than a month took place Tuesday against a backdrop of honking car horns, cheering teachers and audience members moving through the room in shifts.Dressed in blue union-issued T-shirt...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/06/17