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  1. Opinion

The principal went rogue. What took so long for Hillsborough to hear the alarms and respond? | Editorial

The troubling allegations at Spoto High should have been reported to the school district sooner. Yet only the principal lost her job.
Glennis Perez resigned as principal at Spoto High in Hillsborough County following an investigation that found she pushed poor-performing students out of the school and encouraged teachers to inflate grades. [Hillsborough County Schools]
Published Aug. 21
Updated Aug. 22

Steering lagging students to other schools. Falsifying records. Clashing with staff and setting a poor example. The string of abuses detailed after a wide-ranging investigation into the former principal of Spoto High School reflects a corrupt culture that should have been discovered sooner by the Hillsborough County School District. Officials need to rethink the leniency they showed and tighten oversight of the campuses.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Marlene Sokol reported, the former principal had a name for the practice of redirecting students who had little chance of graduating: Selling the dream. Glennis Perez compiled a “dream packet” of information about charter schools and adult education, insisting that alternative options were better suited for students hopelessly behind in traditional classroom settings. Perez claimed she had the students’ best interests in mind. But at least one campus counselor said Perez pushed struggling students off the books to make the school look more successful.

The findings of the internal probe paint a picture of widespread dysfunction - school administrators falsifying student records to buttress Spoto’s academic standing, personality clashes among staff members and a fear factor emanating from the principal’s office that soured the working environment.

Perez denied the most serious allegations during her interview with the Office of Professional Standards, the district’s in-house policing arm, before resigning in June. But employees alleged she pressured them to change records to make it appear that struggling students had changed schools - not simply dropped out, which would have affected Spoto’s graduation rate. Those rates are crucial barometers of the district’s achievement goals, and school principals are expected to meet them. The report describes a directive to give all summer school students "A" and "B" grades, which also affect graduation rates. The science department chairman said he was pressured to give all students in one of the classes a "C" or better. Worse still, senior members of Perez’s leadership team said they went along as directed despite the red flags.

The report, based on interviews with 53 people, is astonishing for the latitude that Perez apparently enjoyed as principal. No one else was disciplined in the case, despite the abusive practices which appeared to be an open secret and the failure of anyone in the chain-of-command to stop what was happening in a timely manner. Superintendent Jeff Eakins said he is confident this is an isolated case, and he credited district staff with alerting superiors and sparking the in-house probe.

It’s clear, though, that whistle blowers need a better communications pipeline to the top. With Eakins retiring next year, it would be easy for the district’s bureaucracy to overlook what’s happening on individual campuses as top administrators and the School Board focus on the leadership transition. The district should rethink the message it sent by being so lenient with everyone involved and put new protections in place that would make it easier for teachers to report inappropriate actions and for the district to quickly respond.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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