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Wednesday, Aug 15, 2018
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School board member is ‘dumbfounded’ by Times report on Hillsborough substitute teachers

TAMPA — Members of the Hillsborough County School Board reacted with outrage, mild concern or, in some cases, not at all to a Tampa Bay Times report on misconduct by contracted substitute teachers.

Responding to the Tampa Bay Times article published Sunday , member Lynn Gray said she believes the whole arrangement should be discussed by the full board, in the sunshine.

"First off, as a parent and grandparent my concern is who is in front of my child," Gray said.

"And as a teacher, my concern would be what is being transferred academically, and what is being transferred as classroom management?"

Members Melissa Snively and chairwoman Sally Harris said they were satisfied with improvements the school district has made in its relationship with Kelly Services, the Michigan-based temporary labor firm that has provided substitute teachers in Hillsborough since 2014.

They were, however, troubled by the Times’ findings that teachers who have been fired by the district, or pushed to resign, often make their way back into the classroom through the substitute pool.

Members April Griffin and Susan Valdes did not respond to calls and texts from the Times.

Member Cindy Stuart did call back, but said, "I’m not going to comment at all. A lot of information was provided. I’m just not going to comment."

Member Tamara Shamburger said she will comment later in the day.

The Times report looked at two sets of issues surrounding substitute teachers, who were paid little more than minimum wage before and after the decision to outsource.

The first concerned a lack of available information about the substitutes and the way Kelly handles problems on the job.

That situation improved in August, when Superintendent Jeff Eakins ordered principals to start copying his human resource office when they file a complaint to Kelly. Snively and Harris were pleased with that change in protocol.

"I feel like with Kelly, each time there is a kink in the system, we negotiate and we work it out," Harris said.

The second set of issues concerned teachers who resigned during investigations into possible misconduct, or were let go in their first two years of service because their principals did not have confidence in them.

"I would like to talk to the superintendent about that," Snively said.

In some cases, Kelly hired former teachers even though their exit papers said they should not rehired for classroom jobs.

"That’s certainly a kink that wouldn’t be good," Harris said.

The Times, after reviewing invoices, found that more than a third of the time, the substitutes are not on the job for a day or two, but are used long-term to fill teacher vacancies. This sometimes happens even after they are fired for failing to complete their certification requirements.

Gray voiced the greatest concerns, and said she is leery of any kind of outsourcing.

"I feel we are creating opportunities for mishandling, misrepresenting, having people in front of our kids that are not astute or not loyal," she said.

"There are things that money can’t buy and I just want the best in front of our kids. It’s huge. We’re opening ourselves to liability, poor perception of trust. I can’t be asking for a referendum (to raise taxes for the schools) after something like this. I’m dumbfounded. It only takes one bad incident for a child to be really frightened."

When interviewed in December, superintendent Jeff Eakins referred to many of the problems uncovered by the Times as being in the past. The district can address problems far more quickly, now that the reporting system has changed, he said.

But, in the same interview, Eakins shared a strongly worded letter he had the district’s attorney write, which demanded detailed information about Kelly’s employee discipline process.

"Although there are numerous variables to consider when operating one of the largest school districts in the country, student growth and safety always has been, and always will be, the primary concern of the HCSD," the letter said. "Consequently, any actions or relationships that are viewed to endanger or inhibit student growth will be immediately terminated."

The letter also asked for detailed information about 38 substitute teachers who were described in the reports.

These include one who was accused of inappropriately touching himself in class, one who was accused in two schools of imposing his religious views on the students, and one who, at various locations, dripped blood from an injured foot over the floor.

The Times has requested a copy of Kelly’s response when it arrives.

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