Pinellas County School Superintendent Julie Janssen is the only one who cannot grasp why Dunedin High School English teacher Maria Raysses-Whipple should have been fired long ago and never allowed to return to a classroom. Students, parents and principals get it. So do several outraged School Board members. Yet Janssen defends sticking hundreds of students with a teacher whose incompetence has been documented for years, and her reasoning is appalling.
Janssen contended it was fine to return Whipple to teaching in 2008 after years in a nonclassroom job because after being gone from a classroom for 10 to 12 years, "you can't predict her behaviors haven't changed." By that standard, no teacher would ever be denied another chance, regardless of a sorry record and negative impact on students.
Whipple's personnel file, detailed this week by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Ron Matus, revealed the district's pass-the-buck management style and the teachers union's blind advocacy that embraces failure. Complaints similar to those filling Whipple's file from years earlier began within weeks of her return to the classroom: low grades with little or no explanation, ridicule of students, and parents waiting weeks for return calls only to be insulted.
Janssen wrongly blames former Dunedin High principal Paul Summa, claiming he didn't adequately document the problems. The record shows Summa pleaded for help within 15 months of Whipple's arrival at Dunedin High and ultimately shifted more than half of her students into other classes. The union is also culpable. It went to bat for Whipple over the years to ensure she kept a job by negotiating transfers from elementary school to high school and ultimately the nonclassroom post. The union conspired with the district to move the problem around and hide it rather than solve it.
Such stories helped fuel the backlash against teachers unions and teacher tenure — including the new state law that bans tenure for new hires and forces a more transparent, if untested, evaluation of teachers. But state law is no substitute for sound judgment by public officials who should expect excellence and hold employees accountable when they fail.
Whipple is on medical leave and has been under investigation by the district since October. But too often, Janssen has been too forgiving of poor performance and her administration too unwilling to make difficult personnel decisions. The superintendent recommended moving an administrator, who created a climate of fear, from one top job to another. That person had helped her daughter's boyfriend get a district job. In another case, the district extended a new job offer to a problem teacher who had been caught stealing yearbook money.
School Board members are angry and promise to review Whipple's case. A superintendent who exercises such poor judgment in giving second chances to unfit employees may run out of second chances herself.