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Pasco School Board member Cathi Martin's absence puts teacher's hearing on hold

LAND O'LAKES — School Board member Cathi Martin missed another meeting Tuesday afternoon, putting a disciplined teacher's fate on hold and rekindling the issue of her chronic absences.

It also didn't sit well with her fellow board members.

"Apologies from all of us for being in this circumstance, which is not a new one for us," said Chairman Frank Parker. "We've been here before. This one is just a little more highlighted."

Parker said he didn't know what actions the board could take to deal with Martin's spotty attendance.

"But I'm going to find out," he said. "In reality, it's the governor's responsibility, not ours. And the voters."

Martin's reputation for missing meetings led state Rep. John Legg last year to push unsuccessfully for a law allowing voters to recall school board members.

Tuesday afternoon, about three dozen people, including lawyers and a court reporter, sat in the School Board chambers waiting for a hearing to decide the employment fate of Irvin Education Center teacher Jeffrey Bush. School Superintendent Heather Fiorentino has recommended firing him for a physical confrontation he had with a student in November.

Tension filled the air as the clock ticked past the 1:30 p.m. start time without any indication that the session might soon begin.

About 20 minutes later, as the board members took their seats, the reason became clear.

Vice chairman Allen Altman had reservations about sitting in judgment of Bush, who he had just learned was the subject of the hearing. Lawyers for the district and for Bush didn't mind him participating, but Altman didn't feel comfortable.

"While I appreciate the kind comments and the trust, I have known this young man since he was born or at least in diapers," Altman said.

His recusal created a new problem.

Martin did not show up for the hearing — or the meeting or workshop that came earlier — and Bush's lawyers did not want to proceed with just three board members present. Martin said she had car problems early in the day, and then she fell, injuring herself badly enough that she could not make the meeting.

Suddenly, Bush's hearing — his life, Lacoochee Elementary principal Karen Marler suggested from the audience — was put on hold.

"Apologize, Ms. Martin is absent. That is something this board is going to have to deal with," board member Kathryn Starkey said. "It's not Mr. Altman's fault we're down to three."

In recent months, Martin's attendance had improved. Before Tuesday, Martin had missed just three meetings since January 2008 and had arrived late for two others.

That's a higher absentee rate than her colleagues', but also much better than in the months just after her 2006 reelection. Between November 2006 and April 2007, she missed about half the board's scheduled meetings.

Again in late 2007, Martin did not make meetings for all of November or December.

Those absences raised hackles, but they didn't interfere with the board's business.

On Tuesday, though, it did. And people were not pleased.

"It's unfortunate Mrs. Martin couldn't be here today, and all these people had scheduled time from their busy days," Starkey said after the aborted hearing.

Martin, whose term expires next year, said her high blood pressure has taken a toll, making it difficult to tend to some tasks.

She said it's not fair for the other board members to accuse her of shirking her responsibilities just because of her repeated illnesses and unfortunate events, such as the hospitalization of her son or her hitting a preschool bus on the way to a meeting.

"It could happen to anyone," Martin said. "Unfortunately, it keeps happening to me. … I don't think it's keeping me from doing my job."

Martin said she planned to visit the doctor today to have the injury she sustained from Tuesday's fall examined.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614.

Pasco School Board member Cathi Martin's absence puts teacher's hearing on hold 03/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 6:48am]
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