RIVERVIEW — The former principal of Spoto High School was so adept at chasing away students with a poor chance of graduating, she had a name for the practice: Selling the dream.
She compiled a “dream packet” of information about charter schools and adult education. She said she was doing what was best for the students. Critics said she was trying to get struggling students off the books to make the school look more successful.
This and other abuses are outlined in a scathing report that the Hillsborough County School District released Wednesday under a public records request from the Tampa Bay Times. It came more than a month after Glennis Perez resigned her position with the district and nearly five months after she was removed from the Riverview school.
As one of 50 “Achievement” schools, Spoto was supposed to receive extra resources and supervision to improve after years of disappointing results.
But the report paints a picture of widespread dysfunction.
It includes detailed descriptions of employees who falsified information about why students left. By changing withdrawal codes, an employee could make it appear that a student was out of town, or in Florida Virtual School, which would not affect the graduation rate, when in fact the student had simply stopped attending or dropped out.
To make it appear the students were in Florida Virtual, the report says, the assistant principal was instructed to enter the codes slowly, one at a time, after sending emails to the virtual school requesting transcripts — which, as it turns out, did not exist.
Perez denied most of these allegations in her interviews with the Office of Professional Standards. There are allegations that, during the investigation, she put pressure on her underlings to protect her.
Graduation statistics were crucial, as the district is on a drive to reach a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. In the year before Perez arrived, Spoto led the district in its graduation rate increase. It was up to Perez, newly promoted from an assistant principal position at Brandon High, to maintain or improve on that record.
The report, based on interviews with 53 people, includes an account that Perez directed a new student from Brazil to be placed in the 10th grade, when she could have been in 11th or 12th grade, saying that “it would give her more time to graduate.”
It describes a “dust file” for a student who wanted to enroll, but had a learning disability. There is a photograph of the file with that label on it. The allegation is that “dust file” meant the enrollment should happen so slowly, the file would gather dust.
“I believe he was turned down because he would have brought the school stats down," teacher Jonathan Collier said.
Grade point averages also affect graduation rates. The report describes a directive to give all summer school students "A" and "B" grades.
The science department chair said he was pressured to give all students in one of the classes a "C" or better. Perez denied ever issuing the order. But, she told investigators, help was needed because they had been taught by a long-term substitute and “a lot of the kids didn’t get any learning."
Perez, 42, joined the school district in 2003 after relocating from New Jersey. A sixth-grade math teacher at first, she took over as Spoto’s principal on July 1, 2018, exactly a year before her resignation.
Problems began almost immediately.
College career counselor David Elkins told investigators Perez wanted to set up “at-risk meetings” in the summer with all students who had low grade point averages or insufficient credits. Elkins was against this. He believed Perez was trying to chase away those who, by not graduating, would be a drag on the school’s record.
A data processing clerk told investigators she was instructed to change withdrawal codes. There was some confusion about why this should happen, and in the course of three interviews, assistant principal Jennifer Canady said Perez had ordered the changes, and she was afraid to push back.
“I felt like I had to prove myself, we were talking about someone that does my evaluation, my career,” Canady said. “I feel used, manipulated, concerned about my own future.”
Perez clashed with Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office deputies assigned to the school. There were disagreements about whether a student should be allowed back to Spoto after an arrest the previous year after an incident in which a deputy was kicked in the face; or whether a student should be allowed into the Homecoming dance while he appeared to be high on marijuana.
Perez tried to talk a parent out of pressing charges when a student was accused of stealing another student’s phone. A sheriff’s sergeant said Perez could have been arrested herself for interfering with a police case.
Employees said Perez called one student her “boo,” and continued to do so even after a teacher’s husband, who was a sheriff’s deputy, told her the teen had been involved in seven gun-related incidents.
There was more than one allegation of inappropriate communication with students.
Teachers worried about their jobs. They worried about their safety. Word got out at the beginning of the school year that administration would not respond when they called about a disruptive student.
“We had to involve the union in that, and then she later recanted,” said Drake Millard, a social studies teacher. “But it was a hostile environment clearly.”
It’s not clear how long it took for word to get to the bosses downtown that Spoto was in the throes of a leadership crisis.
Documents in the file show union leaders, who began meeting about Spoto in October, put their concerns in writing as early as December. Professional Services got a long list of complaints on Jan. 7.
Yet on Jan. 10, superintendent Jeff Eakins used Spoto as the location for a districtwide principals’ celebration, where they were served hot dogs and congratulated for their widespread graduation rate improvements.
It wasn’t until five weeks later, on Feb. 11, that professional services was authorized to begin its investigation.
Perez took a personal leave. She was taken out of the school and placed in an administrative job downtown.
The investigation continued.
Staff said Perez used vulgar language to describe the guidance department. They said she would tell employees to “hold your balls,” meaning they should take responsibility for their actions and not blame her.
She interrupted a job candidate interview to order CBD oil over the phone, they said. She did not respond to a medical emergency on the soccer field because she was smoking a cigarette. Despite a salary of $94,359 a year, she allowed her children to be signed up for free lunch.
Staff also accused Perez of moving money out of the career and technical education budget, which could mean a misuse of federal funds.
Professional standards wrapped up its work in May. By then, the district had named Jazrick Haggins, the former Chamberlain High School assistant principal, as Spoto's new school leader.
In a rare move for the school system, district leaders drafted a letter in June informing Perez that her annual contract would not be renewed.
Before they could give it to her, she resigned. “I have decided to follow in God’s plan and move on to bigger things in my career,” she wrote in her letter.
Speaking through her attorney, Dominic Baccarella, Perez said only that she resigned for personal reasons.
The Times also tried to question Eakins about lessons learned, safeguards he might take at other schools, and whether anyone else will be held accountable for problems at Spoto.
Eakins said he was limited in what he could say, as this is a human resources issue.
But he issued this emailed statement:
"The investigation report describes several situations when our school staff and leaders objected to overly aggressive steps. The fact that our staff pushed back repeatedly and spoke up — leading to this investigation — shows that our culture at Spoto and across our district is not one of “results at any cost.
“While we all work with an expectation of high performance, the leaders in our schools right now make smart decisions every day to do right by students and stay focused on what’s best for students as their priority.”
Contact Marlene Sokol at email@example.com. Follow @Marlenesokol.