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Warned of job jeopardy, outspoken teacher cries foul

ST. PETERSBURG — A Meadowlawn Middle School teacher whose job is in jeopardy claims he is being punished for speaking out against a plan that would change the way children are assigned to schools.

Charles McKenzie, 51, a seventh-grade history teacher, has been told his annual contract might not be renewed and that he could be unemployed by as early as June.

McKenzie, a longtime educator and political activist, said he ruffled feathers when he criticized Pinellas County Schools' new close-to-home enrollment plan at a public meeting in October because he said it would create segregated schools.

"To terminate someone over nothing substantial is a bit confusing," said McKenzie, who has worked for Pinellas schools since fall 2006. "The timing seems odd."

School officials declined to comment on McKenzie's allegations. Twenty other teachers have also been told they might not have a job in the fall, spokeswoman Andrea Zahn wrote in an e-mail.

"The decision to offer another contract is discretionary, and the administrators do not state reasons for doing so because there is no "cause" required to support the decision," said Zahn, who declined to comment further.

Other educators said it is unlikely McKenzie's potential dismissal has anything to do with his opinions.

"I criticize the superintendent all the time," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

The close-to-home plan, approved in December after two years of work, returns Pinellas to a system where race no longer factors into the enrollment process. Families will be able to attend a "close-to-home" school or explore special programs including magnets and fundamental schools.

McKenzie, state coordinator of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and a recent Democratic state House candidate, is known as an outspoken diversity advocate. He was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times in October criticizing a draft of the plan.

"It is a baby that is not ready for birth," he said.

Public records show McKenzie had trouble fitting in at Meadowlawn Middle School long before then.

In April 2007, school officials met with McKenzie to discuss concerns that he allowed students to leave his classroom and roam the hallways and that he used his cell phone during class time, according to school records.

McKenzie said he allowed students to leave his classroom to use the bathroom and that he used his cellphone infrequently. But McKenzie, a teacher since 1983, said he has never been criticized as an educator and points to his successes at other school districts.

"He was quite moving when he spoke, especially during Black History Month," said Margi Nanney, spokeswoman for the School District of Manatee County, where McKenzie worked from 1994 to 2006.

According to annual evaluations, his "students were well-behaved and engaged," Nanney said.

McKenzie's personal convictions did get him into hot water once.

In 2005, he was cited for having students read a poem with religious undertones, a violation of the First Amendment, during a motivational assembly. No disciplinary action was taken.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Warned of job jeopardy, outspoken teacher cries foul 04/12/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 18, 2008 10:00am]
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