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In Hillsborough, a new way of tracking bad substitute teachers leaves public in the dark

The Hillsborough County school system's new "Do Not Use" form for flagging bad substitute teachers no longer contains a space for principals to document what went wrong. Instead, they are urged to check boxes or call the district's contractor, Kelly Services -- a process that can keep key details from public view. In the example above, one principal felt the need to pencil in an explanation, like you could on the old forms. [Hillsborough County School District]
Published May 1, 2018

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District has made it even harder for the public to see what sometimes goes wrong when substitute teachers take charge of a classroom.

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said a new complaint and tracking system improved the district's ability to resolve problems quickly and efficiently.

But, in developing this system, the district redesigned the "Do Not Use" forms principals use to ask Kelly Educational Staffing, its contractor, to stop sending substitutes to their schools.

The old forms had a checklist and a space at the bottom for "additional comments or other specifics."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Poor Substitutes

The new form still has a checklist. But the place for details is omitted, and it directs principals to contact a specific Kelly employee "to provide additional reason not documented in list."

That contact often takes place by phone, which effectively leaves the public in the dark about exactly what happened in the school.

It isn't the first time that the district's arrangement with Kelly has made it difficult for the public to see information on substitutes.

Last year, Kelly refused to turn over the Do Not Use forms until lawyers for the Tampa Bay Times and the district argued successfully that they were public records

When the Times ultimately obtained two years of forms in late 2017, they included details about bizarre behavior — everything from a teacher who bled from her foot at multiple schools, to one who assigned his students to draw either a dog eating a cat or a cat eating a dog.

They also described teachers sleeping on the job, crying, hitting or insulting students, and using inappropriate language.

Details such as those are no longer included in the forms, except in limited cases when principals find room the margins.

"We want to be more pro-active," Arja said of the new forms. "This triggers the principal to have a conversation with Kelly and let them know what occurred, and that is also our trigger to follow up. It allows us to have an ongoing conversation."

The temporary labor service places thousands of substitutes at Hillsborough schools in a deal that dates back to 2014 and is worth $15 million a year. A 33 percent markup covers costs of recruitment, supervision and training. Substitutes typically earn between $8.42 and $11.25 an hour, sometimes with supplements added for long-term assignments.

Many are former school district employees, some retired and others returning after they had problems on the job.

Examples uncovered by the Times include teachers who did not pass their certification exams, or resigned after allegations of wrongdoing that included plagiarism, drunkenness and grabbing a student.

Kelly responded, saying those examples — and the problems in general — represent a tiny fraction of its workers, who almost always do a capable job. Calls to the company were not returned Friday or Monday.

Embarrassed about their protocols after a substitute was accused of masturbating in class, the district last year began to keep its own set of Do Not Use Forms. Superintendent Jeff Eakins also demanded in December that Kelly answer questions about its discipline policies, and about more than 30 substitutes named in the forms.

But, while the district wanted written answers, Kelly asked for a meeting with Eakins instead.

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

That closed-door meeting is scheduled for Friday. It is unclear if any documents will be provided.

District leaders say the Kelly arrangement makes it easier for schools to cover vacancies than when the district hired its own substitutes. Kelly also is considered a useful recruiter for future district teachers. The relationship has improved greatly, Arja said, adding that "anything serious that we are concerned about, we work with them."

If anything, she said, transparency has improved.

In addition to this year's Do Not Use forms, she provided a seven-page statistical report about the way problems were handled.

Eighty-two of the cases were resolved with coaching or counseling. Seventeen received "final counseling." Twenty-one were either fired from the company or pulled from employment in schools, seven complaints were listed as unfounded and two were retracted.

It is unclear, from the documents provided, why some substitutes were counseled while others were fired. For eight of those fired, there were no Do Not Use forms.

"Not everything needs a form," Arja said. Sometimes the principal simply picks up the phone, calls Kelly and Kelly fires the substitute. "We just want the situation taken care of," she said.

In other cases, there were only cryptic notations such as: "problem with an ESE (special education) student" or "principal will call back" or, in a case that required a robocall to parents at Bing Elementary School about a substitute who made some students feel uncomfortable, "as you will see, the accusations are significant."

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

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