National News

School board member is 'dumbfounded' by Times report on Hillsborough substitute teachers

Posted January 17, 2018 1:06 p.m. EST

TAMPA -- The Hillsborough County School District should reconsider how it hires substitute teachers, and that conversation should happen publicly, School Board member Lynn Gray said Tuesday.

Responding to a Tampa Bay Times article published Sunday, Gray said she was troubled by reports of substitutes mistreating children and sometimes sleeping through class.

The report also detailed cases of teachers who were fired, or resigned while under investigation for misconduct, who found their way back into the classroom for months and even years at a time through the substitute pool.

"First off, as a parent and grandparent my concern is who is in front of my child," Gray said.

"And as a teacher, my concern would be what is being transferred academically, and what is being transferred as classroom management?"

The district has contracted all substitute hiring since 2014 through Kelly Educational Staffing, a division of the temporary labor company headquartered in Michigan. Officials say the advantage in using Kelly is that its fill rates are higher.

"This is how I feel about any outsourcing," Gray said. "We lose, let's just say, the pulse of the school, we lose putting children first. I feel we are creating opportunities for mishandling, misrepresenting, having people in front of our kids that are not astute or not loyal. There are things that money can't buy and I just want the best in front of our kids."

Gray continued: "It's huge. We're opening ourselves to liability, poor perception of trust. I can't be asking for a referendum (to raise taxes for the schools) after something like this. I'm dumbfounded. It only takes one bad incident for a child to be really frightened."

Reached later Tuesday, another board member, Melissa Snively, said she was confident that Kelly stops using the subs if they act inappropriately. However, she was troubled by reports of fired district teachers returning as subs.

"I would like to talk to the superintendent about that," she said.

When interviewed in December, superintendent Jeff Eakins referred to many of the problems uncovered by the as being in the past.

He based that assessment on the fact that the relied largely on incident reports covering a two-year period that Kelly stored in Michigan. The Times had to hire a lawyer to access the reports.

Since August, the district has required principals to copy the human resources office on the reports so district leaders can act on problems more quickly.

Board chairwoman Sally Harris said that step made her confident in the substitute teaching system.

"I feel like with Kelly, each time there is a kink in the system, we negotiate and we work it out."

Asked how she felt about teachers who are fired and return as subs, Harris said that's an issue for the district to explore. "That's certainly a kink that wouldn't be good," she said.

Eakins sent Kelly a strongly worded letter in which the district demanded detailed information about Kelly's employee discipline process.

"Although there are numerous variables to consider when operating one of the largest school districts in the country, student growth and safety always has been, and always will be, the primary concern of the HCSD," the letter said. "Consequently, any actions or relationships that are viewed to endanger or inhibit student growth will be immediately terminated."

The letter was signed by the district's attorney, Jeff Gibson. It also asked for detailed information about 38 substitute teachers who were described in the reports.

These include one who was accused of inappropriately touching himself in class, one who was accused in two schools of imposing his religious views on the students, and one who, at various locations, dripped blood from an injured foot over the floor.

The Times has requested a copy of Kelly's response when it arrives.