Here's a story of how not to solve problems at a troubled school, and why tenure is a good idea.
The first thing you have to remember is that in 2011, the Florida legislature and Governor Rick Scott killed teacher tenure. In Florida, a teacher is now hired a year at a time. Nobody is ever actually fired-- they're just not asked back for next year. This is a particularly clever end run around any sort of employment protections, because it means no teacher is actually fired, and therefor no district ever has to give a justifiable reason for firing any teacher.
Now let's travel to Palm Beach Lakes High School to see just how bad an idea that law is, and remind ourselves why due process protections of teachers are not just a scheme to fatten union bank accounts.
Palm Beach Lakes High School is poor and low-achieving. They were once pretty huge, but FL went through a school-minimizing phase; current enrollment 9-12 is listed around 2K (in a district of 183K total students). They have a reported 80% poverty rate, and a 68% graduation rate.
They also have trouble hiring. The school kicked off the year with trouble hiring an Honors Algebra teacher. They finally filled the position in November, but that teacher bailed shortly thereafter, citing "behavioral concerns." Two other candidates each subbed for a day and said "No, thanks."
By March, the situation had only deterioriated, with a series of substitutes in the class. Parents made phone calls and were put off. But PBL is a law magnet, intended as a training ground for future lawyers, and some students in a law class discussion of contracts and negligence had a lightbulb moment about the district's failure to provide an actual teacher for the class. And five of the students decided to take their concern to the school board. The students were freshmen and sophomores; they took their law teacher (and practicing lawyer) Malik Leigh with them. They told a fairly harrowing tale-- instruction by youtube videos, made-up grades, offers by subs to raise grades in exchange for candy and treats, and a sub who said, "I'm just here to babysit and fill in grades."
The school's response was alarming. Principal Cheryl McKeever and Superintendent Robert Avossa immediately went to work on the problem, if by 'the problem" you mean "students popping off in public."
Both Avossa and McKeever are new hires. Robert Avossa was hired by Palm Beach County Schools in June of 2015 after four years as Super in Fulton County. Before that he had been a superintendent and chief strategy and accountability officer at Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, and before that a principal, and a teacher before that. He also holds a certificate from the Broad Fake Superintendent Academy, and he's a newly-minted member of Chiefs for Change.
McKeever is not just a career educator, but a decorated one. She was Florida's Elementary Principal of the Year back in 2009 and followed that up with national recognition. She enjoyed success at both or her previous principal gigs, and her only public problems seem to be that when she changed jobs, she used a credit card from her old school to buy some tote bags and an office chair (total expenditure: $902.50) for her new school.
But her previous job was an elementary school; PBL is a high school, and there were problems from the moment she arrived in 2014. Teacher leaders complained that McKeever had hurt morale and took a hostile, toxic approach to school atmosphere. She brought in her own staff, moved folks around, and in the face of complaints and conflict, warned teachers to watch out for karma. Grievances "alleged that McKeever was using a “hit list” to discourage union
activity, retaliating against teachers by doing dress-code checks in
their classrooms, requiring teachers to give F’s to no more than 25
percent of their students, and removing disfavored teachers from
supervisory positions." All were denied by the district's labor relations manager.
But back to the story of our complaining students.
McKeever told the students they didn't have a teacher because they had run him off. And students who made the trip to the board meeting found themselves the next day in a meeting with an investigator apparently form the district human resources office who was, they say, not so interested in the problems they spoke of as other things, like how did they get to the board meeting, and who put them up to it. Within two days McKeever was meeting with parents to downplay the concerns (which included "why didn't the school tell us this was happening sooner?").
Teachers became concerned over what they saw as a pattern of intimidation and harassment of the students. One reported that a student told of being put in a room and required to sign an affidavit with no parents present. Another teacher who also is a practicing lawyer indicated at one point that their firm was considering a suit on behalf of the students.
And all of that brings us to yesterday's story in the Palm Beach Post.
What do you do when you're having trouble managing your people, when you are having trouble solving problems and settling issues within a school community? Well, PBL may not be pretty, but it's certainly not the ugliest school climate or set of labor issues any school has ever seen, so McKeever and her bosses have plenty of options. They could sit down for some long, difficult, but honest discussions. They could work out an action plan that would allow their own concerns and teacher concerns to be balanced. They could even start by acknowledging some of what is good about this-- for instance, teachers have spoken up out of concern for the well-being of students.
Or they could just fire all the teachers that are giving them headaches.
Yeah, they picked that one.
Well, not "fired," of course. Because of that 2011 rules change, the school can "not invite to return" anybody they care to.
Leigh has chosen to file suit anyway.
Head Principal, Cheryl McKeever, Area 4 Superintendent Camille Coleman,
and Superintendent Robert Avossa are engaging in union busting against
the Teachers Union, and applying unfair labor practices in an effort to
remove “problem” union teachers.
Additionally, the suit alleges that the district has let go "are teachers who filed grievances that
they were forced by an assistant principal to change grades, reported
paraprofessionals for abusing special needs children or merely have
been seen speaking with those teachers who have." As of yesterday, the school district had declined to comment.
There are layers of irony here. Leigh is not a trained educator and he's not a union member; he's the kind of guy Broadies like and that traditionalists like yours truly view with suspicion. And here he is underlining the need for employment protection-- and as a first year "teacher" in most states he wouldn't have it anyway. He is an example of a phenomenon that I keep meaning to write about-- for every ten people saying, "Teachers shouldn't have X because we don't have it where I work," there's at least one person looking into teaching from some other line of work and saying, "How do you teachers put up with that crap?"
This is why teachers need tenure or due process of employment protections-- call them what you like. Do you want your teachers to say to your child, "I'd like to have your back on this, but it would cost me my job." Do you want your teachers to say, "Yeah, I know something really wrong was going on, but I didn't want to say anything because it would cost me my job." Do your want your school run by somebody whose idea of conflict management is to fire everyone who disagrees with her?
This tenure-free purging will be no help to the school, either. They couldn't fill an algebra position-- how will they fill thirty more? Particularly, how will they sell a pitch of, "Hey, we really need a good math teacher for this very challenging school. Incidentally, if you ever cross us, we'll fire you immediately." Come do this very hard job, but don't ever complain about the support you don't get. And don't stand up for the students, or with the students. Who do they imagine would be excited about applying for that job?
See, tenure isn't just needed to protect teachers from bad management, or to protect students who need teachers to stand up for them or with them. Tenure can also protect district management from themselves, from making boneheaded mistakes that just dig them deeper into a hole. Of course, the super-cynical take here is that driving a troubled school further into the ground is just a way to set it up for closure or takeover. Goodbye community school, hello charter. Let's hope that's not it.
Good luck, PBL. The school leaders had nothing to say Friday-- let's hope they come up with something useful over the weekend.