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Wanted in Hillsborough: A special-ed chief who is more of a specialist

TAMPA — Her predecessors in Hillsborough County were specialists in exceptional student education. So are the ESE chiefs in Pasco, Hernando and Pinellas counties.

But Joyce Wieland, who resigned as Hillsborough's chief last month in the aftermath of two student deaths, is not.

State certification records show her training is in areas such as elementary education and educational leadership, not autism or learning disabilities or mentally handicapped education.

Members of the superintendent's ESE advisory council speak highly of Wieland, who got the job in 2008 after a successful career as an elementary school principal.

But some are suggesting that, for her replacement, the district find someone with credentials more specific to the job.

"My opinion is that it should be somebody who has a lot of ESE background, maybe that has lived it," said Janet Atkinson, a member of the advisory council.

"That should go without saying. It should be priority No. 1," said council president Ana Sanders.

The district and School Board are taking a hard look at ESE in response to the deaths last year of students Isabella Herrera and Jennifer Caballero.

Isabella, who had a neuromuscular disorder, suffered respiratory distress on a school bus and died the next day. Jennifer, who had Down syndrome, drowned in a retention pond behind her middle school.

A school district work group, commissioned by superintendent MaryEllen Elia, last month called for increased training, verification of training and technological upgrades to make student health information more readily available.

That same week, it was announced that Wieland would be transferred into the job of general director of student planning, placement and support.

The district described the move as voluntary and Elia praised Wieland's work. So did Sanders and Atkinson. "She came in here with a heart for our families and a heart for our kids," Atkinson said.

Wieland also had experience as principal of a school with a large ESE population, district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.

The state Department of Education requires certifications for teachers, as they work directly with children.

For administrators, the department recommends but does not mandate them, said spokeswoman Cheryl Etters.

Two of Wieland's five certifications are in educational leadership and principal, which the state recommends for ESE directors.

In her ESE job, Wieland replaced Wynne Tye, a longtime ESE educator who is certified in mentally handicapped education, according to the state site.

At the time, Tye was moving up to replace assistant superintendent Michael Grego, who took a job in Osceola County and is now superintendent in Pinellas County.

It's not the first time the Hills­borough district hired a top official without departmental expertise, said board chairwoman April Griffin, who has complained about the practice in the past.

"I think the district should look for expertise in any position they fill," Griffin said. "It's not to say that some people can't learn. But the learning curve is longer when the individual doesn't have experience. And we wind up spending a lot of money on consultants."

Atkinson said she hopes the advisory council, which was consulted in the work group report, will be involved in the director search.

Sanders said she does not know if that would be feasible, given the legal issues that surround hiring. But, she said, "If they want our opinion, we'll give it to them."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

Wanted in Hillsborough: A special-ed chief who is more of a specialist 01/08/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 11:26pm]
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