LAND O'LAKES — Tammy Rattray presented the case to the Pasco School Board starkly.
"We're here today because a teacher missed school," the labor lawyer explained last week. "She missed a lot of school."
In 2004-05, Weightman Middle School science teacher Susan Gozo missed 84.5 of 180 class days. She missed 82 days the next year, 44 the year after that and 31.5 the following year. She blamed it on health problems.
Told in July that she needed to improve her attendance or face dismissal, Gozo missed 14.5 of the first 69 days of the 2008-09 school year. Superintendent Heather Fiorentino informed Gozo on Nov. 24 that she would recommend Gozo's termination.
"I wouldn't allow a student to miss so many days," Fiorentino said in an interview. "I have the same standards and expectations from my teachers. … I have to ensure that every child in every classroom is getting effective teaching."
The School Board has two other teacher dismissal appeals pending, bringing the total to seven since Fiorentino took office in 2004. Records show the board took up just three teacher firings during John Long's eight-year tenure as superintendent — none of them after 1998. In the four years before Long was first elected, the board heard two cases.
"This superintendent seems to have very strong feelings on what behavior is acceptable and what behavior is not acceptable," said Dennis Alfonso, the School Board's longtime attorney.
• • •
Fiorentino's more aggressive policy of pushing out those teachers she doesn't think meet standards has not gone unchallenged. Board members, for instance, rejected her 2006 recommendation to fire Patti Withers, a former Pasco High reading teacher who tried to kill herself at school.
Withers now works at Wiregrass Ranch High. The School Board said she needed help, not humiliation.
"I think there could be more humane things that could be done and a little more effort to compromise" in the cases before they go to the board, United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb said. "There doesn't seem to be much interest in rehabilitation."
One national observer suggested that Fiorentino could do even more to purge not only teachers with seemingly obvious transgressions, such as excessive absences or helping students on the FCAT exam, but also those who simply are ineffective in the classroom.
"The bigger problem for us is, it's just as horrible if the teacher who is there every day of the week is a horrible instructor," said Kate Walsh, executive director of the National Center on Teaching Quality.
State records show Pasco has not fired a single teacher on the grounds of "unsatisfactory performance" in the past five years.
Still, Walsh praised Fiorentino for tackling such cases as Gozo's, noting that many school district leaders across the country seem unwilling to take the steps needed to get rid of any teachers except for those who have the most egregious transgressions.
"We have to have somebody who is willing to take up what is in the best interest of the children, even if it means hurting adults," Walsh said.
With finances so tight this year, more superintendents should be ensuring their money is used most effectively, said state Sen. Don Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County superintendent who now chairs the Senate's Select Committee on Florida's Economy.
"It would be a shame if, in the face of a national and international recession that is forcing budget choices … if some of the best teachers could not keep their jobs and if some of the worst teachers did," Gaetz said. "Teachers ought to be helped if possible. If not, they ought to be helped out."
Fiorentino shared Gaetz's perspective.
"My most important assets are the people in the organization, and each of us has a job to do for children," she said. "Unfortunately, some people make poor choices. I just hold them to the rules and standards."
Absent but effective?
In her testimony to the board last Tuesday, Gozo did not dispute her absences. She did, however, take issue with the suggestion that she could not be an effective teacher.
She noted that, when in class, her principal found her teaching methods strong and her rapport with students positive. It's just that her chronic asthma and other health problems, combined with the location of her doctor's office an hour's drive from school, make it difficult for her to get to work each day, she said.
"It seems like my hospitalizations are going down," she said. "Although my spirit is willing, my flesh is weak, but I believe I can still be a good teacher."
Rattray pointed out through questioning that the school district tried to help Gozo find a job closer to home at Schwettman Educational Center, but Gozo turned it down, in part because it wasn't to teach science. Meanwhile, some parents and teachers at Weightman complained about the difficulties they encountered because of the teacher's absences.
At one point, principal Shae Davis required Gozo to have five days' worth of lesson plans available in case she unexpectedly did not show up for work, something required of no other teacher.
"I consider this one of the most important cases to come before this board," Rattray told the School Board last week. "If a teacher is not in school, the teacher is not teaching and the children are not learning."
The board is expected to make its decision in mid February. Members would not comment on the case while it is pending.
Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.