Saturday, May 14, 2016

FL: Teacher Purge (or, Why Schools Needs Tenure, Pt. 23,617)

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.


  1. K-12 teachers have NEVER had "tenure," no matter what a state might call post-probationary status. "Tenure" exists only in post-secondary institutions because professors have something called "academic freedom." That has never existed for K-12. Teachers have never had any real protections from administrators. Administrative law is one big joke.

    See, I personally know this system of terminations. Districts can easily get rid of you whether or not you have "tenure" or post-probationary status. It all depends on a district's legal department and how willing it is to force teachers out in order to force them to settle out of court or take a severance package. The terminations are bad enough, but try getting another teaching job anywhere else in the United States. Teachers are basically blackballed because of the HR screening questions asked on virtually every job application. Those are the "have you ever..." questions which have to be answered "yes" or "no," and the applicant has to explain the "yes." Of course, HR departments that do the initial screening of teachers don't care about the explanations--they only look for any "yes" boxes checked off. If they are, the application goes into the trash. HR departments don't have to contact your last principal, either, for a reference. They will just call your last district's HR department and ask if you are eligible for rehire. If not, the application also goes into the trash.

    If you try to lie on those applications and are hired and then found out, your license can be sanctioned for "dishonesty." Not only would you be fired for that, but then you would have to disclose the license sanctions, which are way more serious than simple non-renewals or dismissals.

    Teachers have fewer rights than McDonald's workers.

  2. Hate to break it to you, but the super cynical view is the likely one. You see this often in Memphis. First a principal is replaced by a New Leaders For New Schools principal. The school doesn't last long after that.

  3. Thanks buddy. I appreciate the kind words and support.

  4. Hey buddy...FYI: They released me because they did not like that I was teaching my kids applicable law. And in a final irony....they will finish the year WITH A SUB!

    You cant make this up.

    Kids and teachers are pretty upset. I have fielded about 50 calls from parents in support just this morning. It's been a fun day.

    Stay tuned...and again...thanks for telling the world.


  5. I taught at a Florida public school where my math coach incorrectly stated to the Principal that I didn't know how to compute 2 +3 - 4 X 5 / 6 on a calculator because I hadn't used PEMDAS (parentheses, exponentiation, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction). Turns out the state-approved calculator I was using has an algebraic operating system which does PEMDAS automatically; my coach's calculator doesn't. And I was a statistical analyst with the Defense Department for years. Is there something wrong here?