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With teachers, there's no substitute for an evenhanded stance

The telephone call to the office came at 4:57 in the morning. The only people who call the newspaper at that hour are outraged or dialing the wrong number.

It turned out to resemble a call from Emily Litella.

Litella, you might remember, was Gilda Radner's ranting, misinformed editorialist on Saturday Night Live. Thirty years ago she complained of "violins on television'' and other malapropisms. Told of her inaccuracies by the Weekend Update anchor, Litella turned to the camera and chirped, "Never mind.''

In our case, Emily Litella is the elected head of the Pasco School District, Heather Fiorentino. She was perturbed and couldn't wait until sunlight to vent.

The school superintendent's message on the voice mail said she was disappointed newspaper headline writers continued to describe a former substitute teacher, accused of an inappropriate sexual relationship with a high school student, as a "teacher.''

"This is a substitute,'' said an apparently caffeine-deprived, but clear-speaking superintendent. "She has no certificate and it is disrespectful to every teacher …when we put headlines out there that it was a teacher who did this and not a substitute.''

Fiorentino called again 54 minutes later. (This makes two calls to the voice mail before 6 a.m.) She apologized. The offending headline was in another daily newspaper.

The only thing missing was Litella's signature salutation.

In Fiorentino's (never) mind, she is sticking up for the troops. One bad apple shouldn't tarnish the collective efforts of 5,000 teachers.

But you also wonder if her pre-dawn defense doesn't help perpetuate the stereotype of a substitute teacher as a babysitter tolerant of paper-airplane throwing, spitball-tossing, cell-phone chatting misbehavior.

To the average parent and taxpayer, the person in front of the class on any given day is the teacher, whether they are certified, or a substitute.

And let's face it. You can't budget hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay substitute teachers — so you can train the rest of the staff in the much-maligned Learning Focus Strategies — if you believe the fill-in educators are doofuses.

The substitute sensitivity comes after the district was tweaked, undeservedly so, it turned out, for its dismissal of a substitute teacher who left a child in charge of the classroom and didn't follow the lesson plan left by the regular teacher. Instead, the media focus became Mr. Wizard's vanishing tooth-pick trick.

The umbrage also comes as Fiorentino, facing an election-year challenge, has been vilified for recommending budget cuts that deny teachers the pay increases called for in an already-negotiated and approved contract.

Do teachers have a rough time of it? Just read the letters to the editor on this newspaper's Web site. They work long hours for no raises and the public response has been: Tough luck.

So, let me assure that journalists, at least this one, mean no disrespect toward educators, particularly since the list of 5,000 includes the other adult in the Bowen domicile.

However, the timing of the superintendent's protest is problematic.

If it is unfair to lump certified teachers together with substitutes, where was Fiorentino's outrage four years ago? It was then that a 23-year-old candidate for Pasco School Board — who had worked less than 60 days as a substitute — put out campaign literature touting himself as "A Teacher, A Father, A Leader.''

It peeved plenty of people, including the incumbent and eventual winner, Marge Whaley, the mother of two certified teachers.

Fiorentino, at the time a superintendent candidate, didn't take the candidate down a peg publicly for the resume padding or for being disrespectful to all the certified teachers in the district by falsely claiming he did the same job duties.

No, not at all.

Fiorentino, herself a teacher, voted for him.

When it comes to supporting the rank-and-file educators in Pasco County, the indignation shouldn't exclude political pals.

With teachers, there's no substitute for an evenhanded stance 06/09/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 2:00pm]

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