A lot of capable teachers are without jobs in this economy, yet the Pinellas County School District bent over backward to try to keep a teacher of questionable competence and character. The reason was classic cronyism: Jason Pafundi's parents have influential positions in the school district and persuaded district officials to employ their son when all objective evidence indicated he had no business in a classroom or serving as a role model. At the last minute Tuesday, a high school principal poised to give Pafundi a full-time teaching job withdrew the offer. It never should have gotten that far.
Pafundi, 31, began teaching in 2003 and soon demonstrated he doesn't belong in a classroom. At Lakewood High School, he slept in class while his students played cards. He was investigated over an inappropriate personal website. He resigned in late 2004, then was arrested in 2005 after an investigation determined that money he had collected as yearbook adviser had disappeared. Pafundi first claimed he didn't take the money and but lost track of it when school duties overwhelmed him. His father came to his rescue and paid Lakewood High $2,475 to settle up.
Two years ago, Pafundi's parents appealed directly to then-Superintendent Clayton Wilcox to give their son a second chance. Pafundi's father is an administrator in the district's human resources department. His mother is a teacher and the teachers' union representative at Palm Harbor University High. Wilcox listened to them because they were district insiders, and Pafundi was allowed to return as a substitute teacher.
Within two months, the principal of Seminole High found him so unreliable that he didn't want him substituting there again. Earlier this year, Pafundi was accused of inviting a female student at Palm Harbor University High, where he was substituting, to join his Facebook page, which links to his personal Web page containing questionable content. Despite all of this, until the St. Petersburg Times published an article about the situation Tuesday, Pafundi was about to be handed a full-time job teaching senior English at Palm Harbor University High. Palm Harbor High principal Christen Tonry had told the Times she was comfortable hiring him.
After a little public scrutiny, she was not so comfortable a day later about sticking students with a teacher with mediocre skills, poor judgment and a lousy personnel record. School officials decided to do the right thing, but it shouldn't have come down to the wire. When the school district protects or promotes bad teachers, it undermines reforms, erodes public confidence and tarnishes an honorable profession. Superintendent Julie Janssen should examine the numerous errors of professional judgment that almost permitted an undeserving teacher to get a coveted teaching job and should send a message to parents and other teachers that this district expects better for its students.