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Emotions run high for Moton at school board meeting

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An emotional hour and a half discussion took place at the Hernando County School Board Regular Meeting on April 24, 2018 in the aftermath of the school district’s firing of all Moton Elementary teachers.  

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Community members, teachers and parents had an opportunity to voice their concerns about the district’s recent actions.  School board members expressed sympathy for the situation the hard working teachers are now facing.  Superintendent Dr. Lori Romano delivered an explanation of her position and the reasons behind the difficult decision.  

Here are some of the comments from the community.  Many read prepared statements from Moton employees who were not comfortable revealing their identities.

Gregory Champagne read the following letter from a Moton employee who Champagne explained, believes “is not in her best interest to appear in person.”

“We the staff at Moton were promised back in December help in the classroom. Never happened.  Instead the campus was cleaned up. How does this help our struggling students?  Students in the classroom are still struggling. Administrators came in and ruined the teachers. The teachers were evaluated by principals and assistant principals who didn’t even know the teachers. More evaluations were given. Teachers never received these types of evaluations before.  Teachers who were fantastic teachers for so many years were put on a PIP program. This is all insane. Teachers who wanted to leave in the middle of the year were not allowed to go. Why not, I ask?  And now get rid of all these teachers, does this make sense? Absolutely not.  Now tenured teachers are told which school to go to and annual contract teachers aren’t even given a promise to be hired. This situation is all a complete mess.  -signed a Moton Employee ”

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Susan Pribil of Brooksville, Middle School Director of Hernando Classroom Teachers Association (HCTA) has taught in this county for 32 years.  She stated,  “When I started here in 1985, I didn’t intend to stay… what made me stay was the strong sense of family I felt. Not only from teachers at my school, but from teachers and administrators in the entire district.  When you work at a school, the people you work with become your family…”

Pribil continued that in the past, she has appreciated a positive and supportive relationship with district administrators and board members.  “I don’t get the same warm feeling from district staff that I have had in the past.” Citing the district motto:  “We are Hernando, This place is our Home.” Pribil asked, “Are the teachers and family at Moton not part of our district family? Is Hernando not their home as well?”

Joanne McCall drove down from from Tallahassee, FL to attend the meeting.  She is the President of the Florida Education Association- which is the parent organization to the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association (a teachers union).

She remarked, “And you wouldn’t think that a President of a statewide organization would get emotional. But I am. Because this is happening all across the state.  And just because a law says you can do it,  doesn’t make it morally right.  Right in the beginning of the testing season, we tell the teachers they are not coming back.  Not just some. All of them are not coming back. What on Earth do you think that does to the student’s psyche as they are trying to take their test?  You’re already telling them they are failing before they ever get their scores back.  That’s wrong… We should be taking care of our students…. We should wrap our arms around Moton.  There are some simple things that are easy to do.  First, you need an instructional leader in the principal.  That means not an administrator, but somebody who has actually taught in the classroom and understands what it is to be in the classroom. Then you need to give the teachers the support that they need.  Teachers are well trained, but they need the tools, the resources and the correct professional development to make things better. And then we need to involve the community and the parents. Students do best with a stable learning environment. That’s the classroom teacher.  The one who knows the students. The one who knows the parents… We should be making this a community school. You applied for a School of Hope grant.  You received it in January.  Use that money (to) assess the needs of where your scores are… It’s simple mathematics… I implore you to rethink your decision and do what’s morally right for the students at Moton.”

Dennis Soponyai, a teacher at Challenger and longtime Hernando County resident read a statement from HCTA: 

“The district announced last December, a new initiative: ‘All in for Moton.’  This plan was to infuse into the school personnel and money to turn the school around.  Now less than four months into this plan, all the staff is being let go.  Why? Months before MES even earned a school grade for the 2017-2018 school year, staff have been notified that they have been let go, even seeing the results of all their hard work and dedication.  Again, why?   How does the action being taken by the district, by firing all of Moton’s teachers reflect on the district’s commitment to the students and the parents of the school?”

President of HCTA Vince La Borante remarked that the state-approved turnaround plan for Moton did not require the removal of these teachers. “The school district had an obligation to follow the contract and not to make unilateral changes to the conditions of employment and to give the Union adequate notice to impact bargaining,” he said.

Daniel Fierro, Weeki Wachee High School teacher and High School director of HCTA read a letter from a Moton teacher.  

“I want to share with you a few things that I’ve witnessed over the years at Moton… I have seen a student go out on her break and buy a student socks because his new shoes were giving him blisters. I have seen teachers comforting students first thing in the morning because mommy or daddy was incarcerated overnight. I have witnessed teachers taking entire families under their wings and ensuring that they are taken care of and loved… This is the type of teacher I have always strived to imitate.  I am disheartened and disappointed in the leaders of this school system. Where is your heart? Where is your compassion? Where is your honesty… integrity?… Moton has been following the district’s plans for 5 months.  We had until the end of the grading 18-19 school year to move up a letter grade.  If the district is going to make hard working teachers take a hit, shouldn’t the district employees who failed have to take the same hit?”

School Board Member Susan Duval said she is concerned about non-reappointing all annual contract teachers at the school.  “These are dedicated employees who have given their heart and soul to improving the school.”

School Board Member Linda Prescott stated, “I want to think as a school board member, that this was done for the right reasons, but maybe not done the way it should have or could have been done.  It does disturb me that the Union was caught off guard as many of us were. And I have shared those concerns with Dr. Romano… I just want to say to the teachers, thank you for everything you’ve done.”  She’s hoping this decision can be “rethought or looked at again.”  

Beth Naverud was the most outspoken against the district’s actions on the school baord.  She stated, “I was quite shocked by this move. I, speaking for myself, do not believe this was the right thing to do for the students at Moton, for our school district or for our community. I do not know whether this action is legal.  There is a collective bargaining agreement that comes into play here for many of the teachers that were highly effective. I would like us to revisit this entire situation… I’m very sorry that this has happened and I’m hoping we can rectify the situation quickly.”

Dr. Romano was visibly shaken when she began to state her case, but towards the end of her remarks, she grew more confident in her explanations.

She stated, “We have been struggling for over three years, trying to improve at Moton.  We can point fingers at each other, We can criticize each other.  We can judge and I heard lots of that tonight and I’m okay because I know that you all are very hurt by the actions we had to take. I understand deeply.”

She referred to pressure the districts feel due to accountability mechanisms. “They are requiring us to meet mandates that we’ve never had to meet in education.  Moton Elementary has been graded a D for two consecutive years. In 2011, Moton Elementary was an A… It has the ability to be that again… If Moton earns a D at the end of this year, we will enter year 3 of a turnaround.  There are state statutes and requirements about entering year 3.  This year we did implement a 10 week ‘All in for Moton’ campaign. The reason and purpose of that campaign was to do everything we possibly could given the lack of resources that we have across this district… We had staff from all over this district that did their job and another job.”

She explained the dire situation and why she chose to take action when she did.

“We reviewed multiple data points, suggesting the school is unlikely to reach the turnaround targets this year.”  She explained that if Moton is designated as a ‘D’ again, then by October 1, they would have to update their turnaround plan- impacting staff.  If Moton is a D for the third year, by January 2019, they would be required to select one of three options listed in the state statute.  Permanently close the school, temporarily close and re-open as a charter, or turn over school to outside educational company.

“As of October, I will have to go in front of the state board and tell them I want a one year extension… to try to keep Moton open.” She says that very few have been granted.

“The state board will not grant us approval for the additional year unless the district can demonstrate a commitment to making significant changes that are going to improve that school.”

As far as timing goes, she said,  “Horrible timing.  I would completely concur with everybody that spoke about it. Did we want to do it before FSA testing? Absolutely not.”

She explained that school grades are typically released in June or July, but school districts are hiring now.   “Our district is hiring now. We know what the vacancies are across the district… This step allows us to fill all the Moton vacancies first and foremost and to give Moton priority in the hiring process.”  

She assured the community and board members that the Schools of Hope funding is not impacted by this move.  Moton received $1.2 million in grant money in January to provide community services to Moton families.  The Schools of Hope grant is intended to provide funds to schools in order, “To increase student achievement by providing wrap-around services that leverage community assets to improve school and community collaboration and develop family and community partnerships,” according to FLDOE. Dr. Romano said that GED courses have already begun, health screenings are scheduled, budgeting and family classes are being scheduled.

Dr. Romano stated that the 24 non-reappointed annual contract teachers can re-apply at other schools and Moton- if they meet state requirements for end of year evaluations. 

There is a $2200 bonus for all teachers who get hired at Moton for next year.  Dr. Romano said the hope is that Moton’s grade will be a C or higher.  If that is the case, then they will not need to follow the turnaround plan any longer.  

“Children will continue to be our first priority,” she said.

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