Suspended teacher may get job back, back pay

nalund@bradenton.comAugust 21, 2010 

BRADENTON — A tenured math teacher accused of classroom incompetence during the 2008-09 school year may soon return to work and receive almost $23,000 in back pay, Manatee County school officials said Friday.

Laurel Davis, suspended without pay since December 2009, could be reinstated to her sixth-grade teaching position at Buffalo Creek Middle School should the school board approve a judge’s recommendation to keep her employed.

In a ruling signed Thursday, Tallahassee Administrative Law Judge Daniel Kilbride cleared Davis of charges she failed to educate her students and concluded the district failed to prove her students were scoring lower in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — a factor that prohibits the district from firing her for performance-related concerns.

“The district must make the FCAT scores of respondent’s students the primary consideration when evaluating her performance,” Kilbride wrote in a 40-page opinion issued this week after a two-day court hearing in May. “The FCAT date shows that respondent’s students were making forward progress and increasing their FCAT scores at the same time the district-wide scores of sixth grade math students generally declined.’

Kilbride also recommended the board award her backpay and benefits.

Superintendent Tim McGonegal wanted Davis fired after school administrators said more than half of her class received D and F grades and nearly half of them declined by one level in their FCAT performance that year. They also claimed she turned in late lesson plans and failed to grade some assignments. Some parents even reportedly requested to move their kids out of her class.

On April 2, 2009, she was placed on 90 days probation for unsatisfactory performance.

District officials attempted then to counsel Davis and offer her more training, but because students’ grades did not improve and she did not correct the performance deficiencies pointed out to her, McGonegal recommended her termination Oct. 13, 2009.

Davis, who’s worked in the district since 2004, fought the district’s accusations with the backing of the Manatee Education Association and attorney Melissa Mihok. Mihok could not be reached Friday.

Teachers’ contracts are renewed on a yearly basis. If they make it to three years, they receive tenure.

Ineffective teachers often are weeded out during their first three years. Removing teachers once they have been granted tenure involves a long process including warnings and probation.

School Board attorney John Bowen said Friday that he’s disappointed in the ruling.

Bowen said the matter will go before the school board next month. The board will decide then if it will agree with the judge’s recommended order.

“It’s not easy to get rid of a tenured teacher, but it is possible,” Bowen said. “Unfortunately, we have an administrative law judge that is making educational decisions that we are pretty much bound by.”

That is unless he’s incorrectly interpreted the law, Bowen said. If that happens, the board can amend the ruling and fire the teacher.

“Our goal is not to terminate the teacher or any employee. Our goal is to change behavior and help them,” Bowen said. “If that doesn’t occur, we owe it to the teachers not to keep incompetent teachers in the classroom.”

Davis, 37, earns about $38,000 a year.

Her unpaid suspension began Dec. 15 2009, which means if the board reinstates her, she’ll get almost $23,000 in back pay.

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