Defending the Indefensible on Public School Employee Issues
Last May I wrote an article about an employee performance issue in a local school district which was also generally critical of public education overall. I heard from a couple regular readers who seemed a bit disappointed with my position. They work in HR or workers' comp related positions for public school systems, and thought I was too harsh given the fact that they are saddled with political influences, unions and other elements not within their control.
I understand their position and sympathize with their particular challenges, but that does not sway me from my original opinions. Speaking purely from a "customer viewpoint", where the school district is a business and the taxpayers and their children are the customers, we don't really care WHAT makes an operation dysfunctional and ineffective; we only care that it IS dysfunctional and ineffective.
That is also greatly amplified if you consider the taxpayers as stockholders in your "company". We want a decent return on our investment. At least locally, we've had several incidents that would lead us to believe that we are not getting one. At its very core, these are simple employee management issues, but school districts (as well as other public entities) have a difficult time getting this right.
When elements within your operation are defending the indefensible, something is wrong.
Take, for example, these three stories, emanating from two local school districts in my area, in both Manatee and Sarasota Counties here in Florida:
- Last spring, an elementary school music teacher in Bradenton, FL, posted in a discussion on Facebook that one of her African American students, an 8 year old child, was the "missing link between Orangutans and human beings". The teacher, who was heavily defended by her union, received a verbal reprimand. The school district later referred her case to the State Department of Education, hoping they would revoke her teaching certificate and solve the now viral dilemma for them, but the state refused to do so.
- Earlier this month, a 50 year old Sarasota School District bus driver was fired for repeatedly defecating in the bus yard, and for encouraging students in her care to "moon" other students through the bus windows. She also admitted that high school students on her bus "routinely threw condoms and tampons on her bus", which she did not remove, later allowing much younger elementary students to find those items.
Apparently the entire situation did not come to light until maintenance crews at North Port High School reportedly got tired of cleaning up cigarette butts, toilet paper and human waste from the grounds behind her bus. The fact that condoms were thrown about with such disregard tells me that there is likely an over abundance of them, so perhaps the school district should cut back on how many they provide. In the end, and to the credit of the school district, the driver was fired. However, the union objected, and actually fought for the driver’s termination to be overturned.
- The very same day that the bus driver incident hit our local papers, it was reported that a 39 year old Sarasota County middle school teacher had been arrested in a Siesta Key motel room, where he was found partying with three boys, ages 15 and 16. Sarasota Sheriff Deputies reportedly found bottles of rum, alcoholic energy drinks, open condoms and drug paraphernalia. When asked why he was with them in the motel room, he replied that he was a mentor to one of the boys.
Hired in 1997, he had originally been employed as a special education teacher, and apparently had been transferred to human resources last year. I suppose in that position he would have been ideally suited to mentor other teachers on mentoring young boys. That really is special education.
At any rate, the district moved to terminate him, but the decision was of course contested by the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association, the same union that fought to save our "back to nature" bus driver. Ultimately, the teacher resigned rather than face the likely embarrassing task of defending himself through a myriad of hearings and procedures.
My point is that these are situations that, in my view, call for clear and concise action. However, entities like our public school districts have entered into agreements with unions and political factions that make a seemingly straightforward task next to impossible to complete. True, there are private companies that have similar issues, most often when dealing with employee unions. I would argue that in these cases, as with public schools, those companies have some culpability for entering into agreements that ultimately tied their own hands. They are partners in their own demise.
Sometimes we speak of unions as if they are a disinterested third party. Somehow they have no bearing on your operation, except to act as an impediment. Truth be told, they are nothing more than the workforce in place; the people doing the job they were hired to do. In the examples I have outlined here, it is other teachers, other bus drivers, the violator’s co-workers, who are busy defending these outlandish actions, without apparently any regard for the quality of their product or reputation of their profession. It is not that way in the private sector. In my business, as I suspect others, an employee who called a young minority child a “missing link”, would find their racist ass out the door. Period.
Perceptions are important. If a public entity such as a taxpayer supported school district must continually struggle to “do the right thing”, then negative attitudes towards it are a natural result. We should not, and indeed cannot sit idly by and let these things happen without the comments or criticisms they deserve.
To do so would simply be silently accepting and defending the completely indefensible.
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