An obnoxious, foul-mouthed teenager — with behavior problems that had led to his expulsion from school already — was grabbed roughly by an adult male after making sexual comments about the man's wife. Under most circumstances, a reasonable person might suggest the kid had it coming. But the adult was a teacher at the James Irvin Education Center, where the classroom altercation occurred, and because of that Superintendent Heather Fiorentino wanted to fire teacher Jeffrey Bush.
In August, a unanimous Pasco School Board said it wasn't a firing offense. Tuesday, a three-person board majority affirmed that decision by rebuking Fiorentino a second time, saying the administration failed to prove Bush's actions violated Florida education rules protecting the student from physical harm or opening the child to embarrassment or disparagement.
The vote, with Chairman Frank Parker dissenting and Vice Chairman Allen Altman abstaining because he is acquainted with Bush, reinstated the teacher effective Nov. 8, 2008, and gives him back pay of more than $23,000.
The vote came after Fiorentino asked for a clarification on the board's Aug. 21 decision in which it overruled the recommended firing, suggested a lesser punishment, but did not formally say the charges had been sustained. Bush's attorney, Mark Herdman, had a different interpretation. The request for clarification is "a request to say the superintendent doesn't like the outcome. She's made that clear.''
It's tough to disagree with that assessment even if Fiorentino maintained she was just looking out for the safety of children. A nearly $23,000 fine and nine-month suspension cannot be justified as a practical alternative to her misguided quest to terminate Bush's teaching career in Pasco County. Bush was wrong to lose his temper and manhandle the student, but Fiorentino's inability to broker an acceptable compromise reflects an inflexible management style that costs staff time and public resources at the same time the district cries poor mouth.
At the maximum, Bush should have faced a four-month suspension because his original hearing date in March was delayed multiple times, initially because of board member Cathi Martin's absence and then by scheduling conflicts with attorneys, witnesses and an absence by board member Kathryn Starkey. It is unfair to expect Bush to absorb a more severe financial penalty because of delays contributed to by others.
And, moving forward with the nine-month suspension would have brought more, unwarranted expense because of a promised lawsuit from Bush's lawyer contending administrative double jeopardy. Asking the public to finance that circuit court fight — whether it's over $23,000 in forfeited salary or for the superintendent to claim vindication — is imprudent. Board members Joanne Hurley, Starkey and Martin were correct in their vote to end this dispute even if they favored a lesser penalty.