BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County School District leaders vowed last year in their turnaround plan for struggling Moton Elementary to remove all under-performing teachers if the school earned lower than a C grade from the state in 2018.
But last week — months before Moton learns its grade — administrators told all 47 teachers at Moton that they must leave at the end of the school year. All of them are rated either effective or highly effective — the two highest ratings possible — on their most recent evaluations, according to Angela Shepard, district communications and government relations specialist.
Administrators gave teachers the news at a faculty meeting April 13, school district spokesperson Karen Jordan said. The decision was made by Superintendent Lori Romano, who did not respond to six requests for an interview by the Tampa Bay Times. The action is what Romano and her team deemed best to give Moton a "fresh start," Jordan said.
Moton has been rated a D school by the Florida Department of Education for two years in a row, falling twice on the state's list of worst performing schools. Its performance still looks bleak, said John Stratton, executive director of business services for the district, who delivered the news to teachers.
"Progress monitoring data does not provide the certainty we would hope for to say (Moton) would perform better," he told the Times on Tuesday.
There isn't enough data available to "determine who is struggling and who is not," Stratton said, and the district opted to eliminate the teaching staff altogether.
Tenured teachers at Moton will receive a new assignment at another county school for next school year. Newer teachers on year-long contracts must reapply for a position within the district or find work elsewhere.
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On Saturday, Jordan told the Times the district's action would protect Moton from one of three things that would happen this summer if the school earns a third D rating: permanent closure, temporary closure to reopen as a charter; or removal from the district to be turned over to an outside agency.
"None of those were what we wanted," she said. "We wanted to maintain Moton as our school with our decision-making."
Yet on Monday, Jordan said that if Moton gets a D this summer, Romano has until Oct. 1 to bring an updated plan to the state Board of Education and ask for one more year to turn the school around.
Only if her request is denied would the district lose control of Moton, Jordan said, and the takeover would happen in the summer of 2019.
New administrators assigned to Moton last month, combined with an entirely new staff, will help the district "demonstrate the school grade is likely to increase given more time," Jordan said.
Stratton agreed: "We really feel like it's the best scenario to set that school up to restart and reset."
Districts must ensure the principal of a failing school has successful turnaround experience and the school has effective teachers, according to Audrey Walden, press secretary for the state DOE.
The state-approved turnaround plan for Moton Elementary School, she said, "did not require removal of all the teachers."
School Board member Beth Narverud said she was "blind-sided" by the district's action. Romano called her April 12, Narverud said, to say low-performing teachers at Moton would be let go. Board member Gus Guadagnino said Monday he heard the same thing from Romano, that only some teachers at Moton would be affected.
"Them releasing the entire school in this manner ... I was really taken back," Narverud said. "I learned from the (Times) what was actually happening."
Guadagnino wasn't as bothered by Romano's action. There was no other option for Moton, he said.
"I do really believe that everybody is on board," he said. "All the teachers that are going to come in, I think they'll be on board."
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Many parents and families of Moton students learned the news from social media over the weekend.
None were notified by the district until Monday, when a letter went home with students.
"That is not good," School Board member Linda Prescott said. "Our communication needs to improve."
Some posted suggestions for a community meeting, so parents can speak directly with district leaders. Others committed to addressing the topic at next week's School Board meeting.
Jody Kenyon, whose fourth-grade daughter has been at Moton since pre-kindergarten, said his main complaint is that the district didn't wait until after state testing, which took place at the school this week.
"The timing that they chose to do is very irresponsible," he said. "For them to take such drastic action on a Friday afternoon, literally two days before testing ... It leaves the whole school in shock."
School Board member Susan Duval was dissatisfied with the timing, too.
"We say children are our first priority in this district, but the way in which we conduct our decisions sometimes contradicts that," she said.
The district decided to give teachers the news now to allow them more time to apply for other jobs, Jordan said.
"If we had waited until summer ... it would have landed in a time when a lot of open positions would have already been filled, and staff would have had fewer options for placement," she said.
The district tried to avoid delivering the news during testing "at all costs," Stratton said. "But in today's schools, testing goes through May, and it comes to a point where there really is not a perfect time."
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Members of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, the union representing the instructional staff, have "several concerns" with the decision, president Vince La Borante said on Tuesday.
"We are currently reviewing all of our options to contest this unilateral action against the HTCA contract," he said in a statement. "There are no federal or state rules that mandate the district to take this action at this time."
According to the district, professional-service, or longer-term teachers will be placed at another Hernando County elementary school in a position similar to the one they held at Moton. Eighteen of the school's 47 teachers fall into this category, and they began learning their new assignments this week.
Teachers working on one-year contracts are free to apply for jobs at any Hernando school, including Moton, Jordan said, if they are rated as effective or highly effective.
All teachers hired at Moton for the school next year will receive a $2,200 signing bonus, Jordan said.
School Board Chairman Mark Johnson said he trusts Romano's plan to get Moton back on its feet.
"Hopefully it works," he said.
Narverud said she worries about how the district will fill 47 positions at Moton.
"For me, opening up 47 positions in a climate where we are short teachers is reckless," she said. "Money is a nice incentive, but job satisfaction and security are far better incentives and mean more to people."
Contact Megan Reeves at email@example.com. Follow @mareevs.