And You Thought Test Scores Were the Problem

In 2005, I was hired as an interim schools superintendent for a school district living in the aftermath of a financial apocalypse prompted by two things: the school board’s refusal to raise property taxes for five years in a row and a misguided effort to improve student performance.The Boys

I say misguided because they didn’t try anything new and just spent more money on what they were already doing. That was their improvement plan.

Click here for the solutions-based book “Why We Failed: 40 Years of Education Reform.”

Unfortunately, they were spending money they didn’t have (a fact that was reported annually by independent auditors), and they eventually had to raise taxes 30 percent and lay off 75 employees to balance the budget. The school board and administration assumed their state legislative representatives would bail them out with extra state aid as they had in the past. That extra aid never came and, when the district’s financial train hit the wall, the district became persona non grata in the world of Standard and Poor’s. They were bankrupt.

Eventually, legislators passed special legislation that allowed the school district to borrow $10 million to pay off immediate operating expenses. (Normally, New York State school finance law would prohibit a school district from borrowing money for day-to-day operations.)

An excerpt of the “Creating Quality with Tenure” chapter in the solutions-based book “Why We Failed: 40 Years of Education Reform,” coming soon on Amazon.

At the same time that the financial apocalypse was taking place, abysmal academic performance had landed the district’s high school and middle school on the New York State Education Department’s list of Schools In Need of Improvement (SINI). It was a perfect storm. And it occupied a lot of my time early on in my first year with the district.

Then in May (it gets worse) my security team, led by a retired police officer, an experienced professional I trusted, informed me that eighth grade teacher Terry Bonesteel had been sending inappropriate, sexually explicit social media messages to middle school students.
(Note: Names have been changed even in cases like this where details have been reported in the press or are available through the Freedom of Information Act.)

Terry Bonesteel’s salacious social media messages were discovered by a parent who called the school district. A search of the school’s computer system files revealed several messages sent. As reported in the newspaper, they included comments like:

Student: “I thought you were gay.”

Teacher: “No I told you I love pussy, especially young pussy.”

On the advice of our school district attorney the details of the teacher’s missives were turned over to the local police to determine if he had committed any crimes.

Unfortunately, by the time the police and prosecutor obtained a warrant to search Mr. Bonesteel’s home computer (apparently, it takes time), any incriminating evidence they may have found was gone. To make matters worse: The police or the parents (not sure which) called the press and the story ended up in multiple local newspapers and in several local TV news reports.

In the meantime, I checked Mr. Bonesteel’s personnel file and found an employee counseling memo written to him three years earlier by the former superintendent detailing that Mr. Bonesteel had, on multiple occasions, gone on the Internet and visited pornographic websites while using the school’s computer system. The memo warned Mr. Bonesteel his behavior was unprofessional and would not be tolerated and, if repeated, would result in more serious disciplinary action including loss of pay or termination from his job.

Again, I contacted the school district attorney who had written the original memo to Mr. Bonesteel for the previous superintendent and who still worked for the district. “Why didn’t you fire this guy when you caught him using the school’s computers to go to porn sites?” I asked.

The answer: The New York State education commissioner and a small army of lawyers and independent hearing officers hear all appeals on tenured teacher and principal disciplinary issues in the state, and the commissioner would not support termination on a first offense of this nature for a tenured teacher.

My analysis of previous cases decided by the commissioner which are publicly available revealed that the attorney’s analysis was accurate.

Next question: “He’s been warned about misuse of school computers, and his actions in this new instance are clearly inappropriate and unprofessional – can we fire him now?”

Read the rest in the solutions-based book “Why We Failed: 40 Years of Education Reform” by Lonnie Palmer, coming soon on Amazon. For more on the author, click here.


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