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After months, no action on Hillsborough's substitute teacher problem

TAMPA — Confronted in late 2017 with reports of misconduct by substitute teachers hired through a contractor, Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins said he would ask tough questions and demand answers.

He had his lawyer, Jeff Gibson, inquire about Kelly Educational Staffing's disciplinary policies, and about 38 substitutes who were so problematic that principals didn't want them back in their schools.

He gave the company 10 days to respond. He said he would reconsider Hillsborough's multimillion-dollar relationship with the firm if they did not. He repeated the request in two follow-up letters.

"The district and the superintendent value the relationship with Kelly," Gibson wrote on March 8. "But we must receive a satisfactory response immediately."

Now, after four months, it appears the company is preparing to issue a response. But it will come in a face-to-face meeting, which will allow the information to be shielded from the media and the public.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Napping, name-calling and stealing. Who's subbing for your kids' teachers in Hillsborough?

"While we are disappointed in the delay of their response, we are glad we are now going to engage in dialogue and look forward to what they have to say to better support students and employees," district spokeswoman Tanya Arja told the Tampa Bay Times in an email Friday.

"We have not received any information in writing, however Kelly Services has requested a meeting."

That meeting is scheduled for May 4. The Times will not be allowed to attend. As for documentation, Arja added, "we do not know what Kelly Services will provide at the meeting but we will update you."

Letters from the company, obtained through a public records request, show Kelly officials were troubled by a Times article published on Jan. 14, describing the principals' allegations and a lack of transparency that made it difficult to obtain reports about misconduct. The Times based much of its reporting on "Do Not Use" forms filled out by principals when they didn't want a substitute to return to their school.

It took several months, and lawyers from both the Times and the school district, to obtain the forms.

The article, called "Poor Substitutes," described substitutes who berated students, made inappropriate and sometimes sexually laced remarks, slept on the job, hit children and exhibited a variety of bizarre behaviors.

Former Hillsborough teachers, who had resigned while under investigation for misconduct, returned to the classroom afterwards as Kelly substitutes. In some cases, their files clearly indicated they were not to teach any more.

One teacher resigned after state allegations that she plagiarized her work for an English for Speakers of Other Language endorsement. Despite that matter, Kelly placed her as a permanent substitute at a science magnet school.

District officials said in December that they were tightening their protocols to avoid such mistakes. But Eakins said he was troubled by the behavior described in the Do Not Use forms. "I don't have a lot of patience for people who, with our kids, conduct themselves unprofessionally," he said.

Kelly has been the district's substitute contractor since 2014, an arrangement intended to improve "fill rates" so instruction would not be disrupted when teachers were absent.

Its contract with the district, worth as much as $15 million a year, expires in 2020.

The district has paid Kelly more than $10 million so far in this school year, roughly half of it after Eakins and Gibson sent their December demand letter.

THE GRADEBOOK: All education, all the time

Kelly officials would not comment for this article, but issued a statement that said in part, "We strive to remain transparent and open in all communications with district leadership."

The statement also said Kelly shares the district's values and is proud of the 2,500 substitute teachers that it places in Hillsborough's classrooms.

District officials said in December that they were pleased overall with Kelly. In addition to improving fill rates, the company recruits hundreds of future teachers.

In her email, Arja repeated that since 2017, when problems were brought to the district's attention, "we have worked with Kelly to institute new processes so that we were more closely collaborating concerning substitute teachers."

While the Do Not Use forms used to be stored exclusively at Kelly's corporate headquarters in Michigan, the district now keeps copies so it can exercise more oversight and respond more quickly to ongoing problems.

The Times has a pending request for all of this year's forms.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.