LAND O’ LAKES — The teacher had been hired in August to work with autistic students, but it became clear early on that things weren’t working out.
The school reported inappropriate interactions with other staff members and students, including yelling and pointing fingers at students, which was especially troubling in a classroom of young people with autism, district officials said.
Slightly more than a month after the teacher was hired, the district dismissed her, long before the end of a yearlong probationary period.
“Our goal is to keep people employed,” Superintendent Kurt Browning told school board members last week during a workshop on employment practices. “But we also want and demand a certain level of behavior by employees.”
All newly hired teachers and other school workers are in a probationary period when they first begin the job. During that time, state law allows the district to fire the employee with or without cause. District officials say they don’t just dismiss someone on a whim, though, and except in egregious situations administrators will go to great lengths to provide support to teachers or other school workers to help them improve and stay on the job.
“We try to work with employees,” said Betsy Kuhn, the district’s employee relations director, who led the workshop. “It’s not supposed to be this ‘gotcha.’ ”
But board member Steve Luikart, who pushed for the workshop, said he thinks on rare occasions principals are getting rid of probationary employees without giving them a chance to correct their deficiencies.
He said he has heard from teachers, including one this year, who said they were called in without any advance warning and told there were concerns about their performance and given the choice of resigning or being fired.
Browning said he would have his staff look into the most recent case Luikart referred to, but the superintendent also said such a situation would be unusual because the employee relations department typically moves more slowly than even he prefers.
“These folks in employee relations, there were folks I wanted right then and there to get out of the classroom, yet they are the ones that slowed me down,” Browning said. “They said, ‘We need to do A, B and C before you pull the trigger on this.’ ”
Kuhn said a principal can’t fire an employee without going through district offices. During a PowerPoint presentation for the board, she gave eight examples of probationary employees who were dismissed for various shortcomings, including the teacher of autistic students.
Among her other examples was a cafeteria worker who couldn’t grasp basic food-preparation duties; a custodian who yelled and cursed at co-workers; and an elementary school teacher who simply walked off the job less than two weeks after being hired. Kuhn did not name any of the employees.
Assistant Superintendent Ray Gadd said that, short of extreme situations, it’s usually in the best interest of the district to work with struggling probationary employees.
“We put a lot of time and energy into hiring people,” Gadd said. “It would behoove us to try to mentor them because we already put two or three months of energy into them.”
Just how long the probationary period for teachers actually is under state law is subject to debate, officials said. The law says a probationary contract lasts for one school year. The Pasco school district interprets that to mean the probationary period ends on the final day of the school year in which the employee was hired.
That means, though, that a teacher hired near the end of the year would have a much shorter probation than a teacher who was in the classroom on the first day of school. Kuhn said that interpretation is the one most school districts in Florida use. Some districts see it differently, and their probationary periods go into the next school year for late hires, she said.
The probationary period for most other school employees, such as cafeteria workers, custodians and bus drivers, is 60 days and is set by the district’s contract with United School Employees of Pasco.