Popular East Lake teacher forced to retire

EAST LAKE — On any given day, history teacher Bob O'Donnell takes a helmet from his cabinet, adopts the appropriate accent and whisks his class to a faraway place and time:

Caesar's invasion of Gaul. Napoleon's battle at Waterloo. Or maybe the trenches of World War I.

As an honors and advanced placement history teacher, O'Donnell helps East Lake High students understand great discoveries, the growth of the global economy, the rise of democracy and the fall of empires.

But there's one thing he can't explain: Why he has to leave.

And that has students and parents rallying to his side.

After 35 years teaching history in Pinellas County, O'Donnell, 56, finds himself in a spot he didn't anticipate. Five years ago, he, like many other teachers, signed up for the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP.

The Legislature created DROP in 1998 to encourage senior public employees nearing retirement to make way for more junior, lower-paid colleagues.

DROP allows participants who reach age 62 or have 30 years of service to retire and then continue working for up to five years.

During that time, they receive their salaries, and the state deposits the pension benefits they would have received plus 6.5 percent interest. When they leave for good, they can roll the accrued money into a retirement account, take it as a lump sum or do some of both.

O'Donnell, who makes $62,500 a year, so far has accrued about $140,000 in DROP benefits.

The DROP benefit generally is limited to five years, but legislators have allowed teachers and other public employees where shortages exist to work another three years.

In the Pinellas school district, those extensions require the approval of superintendent Clayton Wilcox.

At the time O'Donnell signed up, other teachers he knew were already in the program and getting three-year extensions. He didn't think it would be a problem to get one, too.

Now, however, the school district is strapped for cash. Wilcox has denied O'Donnell's request for an extension.

So unless administrators later decide to re-hire him on a one-year contract after a one-month break in service, this is his last year at East Lake High.

These days, that kind of arrangement is getting increasing scrutiny. In recent weeks, the St. Petersburg Times has reported that statewide, more than 8,000 public employees, including some elected officials, are collecting both a salary and a pension. In response, legislators have filed bills aimed at preventing elected officials from receiving both salary and pension.

Those 8,000-plus employees retired in a variety of ways, some of them through DROP.

While O'Donnell is in DROP, students and parents don't see him as someone trying to gain an unfair advantage. They see him as someone who belongs in the classroom.

Making O'Donnell leave doesn't make sense to Gabriella Garcia, 16, a sophomore in his fifth-period world history class.

"We didn't understand how they would make a teacher retire who loves his job so much," she said, "when there are teachers who don't care."

• • •

During a world history class late last month, a sophomore told O'Donnell, "I sure hope you're here (in two years) so I can take European history."

"Well, it doesn't look like that will happen," O'Donnell said, "because I've just been told that I haven't been extended."

With that, O'Donnell left the room. The son of an Irish police officer in Boston, he says he's quick to cry and quick to fight. The crying, he sensed, would come first.

"When you see a 56-year-old break down in front of a group of 15-year-olds, that's pretty scary to them," he said. "I'm like their grandfather."

O'Donnell, who is the school's social studies department chairman, taught 14 years at Dunedin High before moving to East Lake, where he has been for 21 years. There, he has forged strong relationships with students and mentored other social studies teachers. In 1989, the Daughters of the American Revolution named him the state's top teacher of American history.

So he said the news that the school system no longer needed him was humiliating.

Like anyone else, he said, he wanted to hear, "we value you and we want you to come back as a classroom teacher in the fall."

When he returned to class that day, students were talking strikes, petitions and more. Please, he said, don't do anything extreme.

The students sent e-mails to school officials and started a petition at www.ipetitions.com/petition/odonnell. Parents joined the cause, too.

"You meet this man and you will love him in five minutes," said Julie Richardson, mother of a former student. "He's tough, but he's fair."

"It saddens me," Richardson wrote Wilcox, that after all the years O'Donnell had given the school, "this is the thanks" he gets.

Wilcox responded that the issue is complex, but "the employees chose to enter DROP when they did — fully understanding the consequences of (the) decision and the financial benefits of (the) decision."

"This is not something we are 'doing' to them," Wilcox wrote in his e-mail to Richardson. "Rather, it is the consequences of their actions."

In Pinellas County schools, 37 teachers applied for a DROP extension this year. The county approved eight extensions, mostly for math, science or special needs teachers.

Ron Stone, the district's associate superintendent for human resources, also sent Richardson an e-mail. Stone himself retired in the DROP a year ago and was rehired for this year, but his request to be rehired next year has been denied. Stone wrote that state revenue reductions led Wilcox to restrict extensions to positions in areas with critical needs. That doesn't include social studies.

"This is not a reflection on the valued service Mr. O'Donnell has provided to the students at East Lake and Pinellas County Schools," Stone wrote. "Rather it is a financial decision we must make each year to balance the wishes of teachers against the financial reality of the state budget and its impact on our school system."

O'Donnell could yet be rehired under a yearly contract once the hiring process is completed, Stone wrote, "if we still need highly qualified teachers in the area of social studies."

• • •

"He's had a fantastic career and people recognize that," Pinellas County School Board member Peggy O'Shea said of O'Donnell. "So we'll see."

Still, she said, O'Donnell knew what he was signing, and it costs more to keep DROP teachers in the classroom.

"There's always the other train of thought, too," she said, "that you want to give opportunities to the younger teachers coming up."

But how, others ask, does forcing experienced teachers to leave serve students?

"We always told people that as much as they liked the idea of extending in DROP, they should never count on it," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

"But nevertheless, we'll fight for Mr. O'Donnell," he said, as well as 12 to 15 other teachers with equally compelling stories.

By focusing on "critical needs" fields like math and science, Moore says Wilcox is not taking teaching quality into account.

"He's looking at the certification — what's your license to teach?" said Moore. "But that doesn't mean they are good."

As a department head, O'Donnell would not be replaced with a new hire making the district's starting salary, now about $37,300, school administrators acknowledge.

Instead, an experienced teacher with a much higher salary would likely move up to fill his position. The district may save some dollars by replacing those teachers, Moore says, but not that many.

"It's only about a quarter-million out of a billion-dollar budget," he said.

The union is considering legal action.

"I'd much rather resolve the matter with the district in a friendly way rather than do it with a lawsuit," Moore said. "But it is, in our opinion, age discrimination."

• • •

One morning this month, sophomores were filtering into O'Donnell's fifth-period honors world history class.

"We'll get your job back, Mr. O'Donnell," Lauren Tanner said.

But first, a British pith helmet awaited the day's journey to colonial India.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is what we are about: the study of imperialism," O'Donnell said. "Let me put on my hat."

He asked if anyone could identify a leaf growing in India that would drive the world wild.

"I don't want to answer that," one student said.

Tea, said another, correctly.

O'Donnell then led the class from the black hole of Calcutta to the Boston tea party.

Out in the hallway, East Lake High principal Clayton Snare told a reporter that the administration has to make some tough choices in the face of budget constraints this year. Snare's request to be rehired after five years of DROP was approved, so he will return as principal.

Snare had asked O'Donnell be extended in DROP. Telling the teacher his request had been turned down was "one of the hardest things I've ever done," he said.

O'Donnell is the best, an icon at East Lake High, Snare said.

"If you had a son or daughter," he said, "you'd want them to be in his class."

Just then, O'Donnell's voice bellowed through the closed door.

"You will pick up your weapon!" he boomed.

And the battle was on.

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Popular East Lake teacher forced to retire 03/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2008 5:24pm]

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