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Popular teacher's reluctant retirement sparks debate

EAST LAKE — The case of reluctant-to-retire Bob O'Donnell, a much-admired East Lake High School teacher, has raised a stir among his students, former students and now, School Board officials.

Reacting to O'Donnell's situation, two Pinellas County School Board members are suggesting the school district rethink its policy on mandatory retirement for teachers who participate in the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP.

At Tuesday's School Board meeting, Pinellas County School Board member Mary Brown suggested a compromise that would allow teachers like O'Donnell to keep their jobs if they wanted to continue working beyond the five years mandated by DROP.

"What if there were teachers who were willing to come back after DROP at a beginning teacher's salary?" she asked. "Is that possible?"

School Board member Linda Lerner said she also wanted to explore that option after hearing from two of O'Donnell's former students. Lerner asked the School Board attorney to prepare a legal opinion.

But Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and some School Board members, including a vehement Jane Gallucci, said they don't want to make any immediate changes and argued that no one is forced to sign up for DROP.

"DROP is a purely voluntary program," said Gallucci, enunciating loudly and hands chopping for emphasis. "Teachers know it's out there. They sign the papers. Nobody forces them to sign it. It is purely their decision and their decision alone."

Wilcox suggested a workshop on the issue. He also said a certain amount of turnover among staff may be a good thing "to create some churn within the organization."

O'Donnell, 56, a Trinity resident, said he is resigned that he will have to retire and then reapply to teach. His first choice will be East Lake, but he will also apply in other county school districts.

"I think they've drawn their line in the sand," he said Wednesday.

At issue is O'Donnell's decision five years ago to sign up for DROP, which was created by the Legislature in 1998 to encourage senior public employees nearing retirement to make way for more junior, lower-paid colleagues.

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.

O'Donnell hoped to get a three-year extension. But Wilcox denied O'Donnell's request, citing financial concerns.

The decision dismayed many of O'Donnell's students and their parents, who praise his dedication and creative teaching methods.

Among them is Kate Lindblem of Wesley Chapel, who spoke to the School Board Tuesday. She was his student six years ago at East Lake and started teaching this year.

"Robert O'Donnell can explain his way into the adolescent brain so well that it will remember that the Boxer Rebellion had nothing to do with either undershorts or dogs," Lindblem said.

While a majority of the School Board didn't want to deal with the DROP extension issue this year, Lerner said she thinks it should be addressed.

"The union could request that we look at it," she said. "And then we would have to look at it."

At Lerner's request, James A. Robinson, the School Board's attorney, said he will research the issue further.

O'Donnell, who makes $62,500 a year, so far has accrued about $140,000 in DROP benefits. He said he would be happy to take a smaller salary if it meant he could continue to teach.

"The dilemma that we face is, this is in my community," said O'Donnell. "They say, 'Don't take it personally,' but how else am I going to take it?"

Staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report.

Popular teacher's reluctant retirement sparks debate 03/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 8:53am]
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