It takes a lot to dismiss a teacher

By Ron Matus, Times Staff Writer  Published Saturday, March 28, 2009

By the spring of 2007, Roy Sachse's boss had had it.

In a span of 18 months, a co-worker accused Sachse of cussing her out. A confiscated note suggested he wanted to meet a 14-year-old girl behind a Dumpster. A parent said he threatened to pull another girl's pants down. Away from work, police arrested Sachse (pronounced SAX-see) on a charge of stealing a $5.95 sandwich — an arrest he was supposed to tell his boss about within 48 hours, but investigators said he did not.

Even for a guy whose personnel file was thick with warnings and reprimands, this was a lot of drama.

Sachse's boss e-mailed his own bosses: "Mr. Sachse has a long history of incidents involving very poor judgment. I believe it is in his best interest to get a fresh start at a new facility."

In many workplaces, Sachse, now 49 and making $50,120 a year, would have been fired. But Sachse isn't just any worker.

He's a teacher.

Teachers are rarely fired.

In Florida, most teachers have tenure, a status written into state law that gives them special legal protections. Most also have a union willing to wage a legal fight for them. The combination yields a firing process so tedious and time-consuming, districts rarely bother.

When teachers earned workplace protections in the early 20th century, tenure was intended as a shield against overbearing parents and heavy-handed school boards.

Supporters say the need remains. Just imagine, they say, what could happen to tenure-less science teachers in stretches of Florida where evolution is ridiculed.

But critics say tenure's shield is too often extended to teachers who don't deserve it.

The Pinellas school district, with about 7,300 classroom teachers, has fired six tenured teachers in the past four years. Hillsborough, with about 13,000 teachers, has fired 10.

It's true some teachers are forced to resign in lieu of firing. It's true some are rooted out during their first three years on the job, before they get tenure. It goes without saying that bad teachers are the exception.

But they are there. By one national expert's estimates, based on surveys of more than 20,000 administrators, 3 to 5 percent of teachers are poor and 13 to 20 percent are marginal. Personnel records reviewed by the St. Petersburg Times show some of those Pinellas and Hillsborough teachers remain in classrooms year after year, despite persistent complaints.

It's not just their students who suffer. Bad teachers sully the reputation of hard-working teachers and lower their morale. And the inability of public schools to purge them feeds perceptions that schools are resistant to change and tolerant of mediocrity.

"It is what it is," said William Corbett, the principal at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo who successfully lobbied for Sachse's transfer. "If (a teacher) does something bad, the first response isn't to fire them," continued Corbett, who once owned a construction company. "It's not an option."

Bad teachers drag a mess of other issues into plain view.

How do you tell the good from the bad? How do you fix a teacher evaluation process many call useless? How do you stop a musical-chairs transfer system that shuffles bad teachers from school to school? All those issues are being scrutinized like never before. And from all points on the political spectrum.

Tallahassee lawmakers are debating a bill backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, that would end tenure for new teachers hired after July 2009. In Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee, a Democrat, made the cover of Time magazine in December because of her no-holds-barred campaign to boot bad teachers.

Even President Barack Obama is talking about it.

"It is time to start rewarding good teachers," he said in a speech this month, "and stop making excuses for bad ones."

• • •

In 22 years in Pinellas schools, Sachse has been in hot water at least 20 times.

At two schools. Under several principals.

Again and again, the PE teacher has been written up for the same issues: Poor judgment. Unprofessional behavior. Failure to follow rules.

There's no single incident in Sachse's file so outrageous, it invites universal condemnation. There is no Debra Lafave moment. Instead, the picture that emerges is of an employee who skirts the edge.

There is gray here, too.

On seven occasions, administrators deemed complaints against Sachse unsubstantiated, including in 2006 when a student created an edgy MySpace page about Sachse without his knowledge.

But on two occasions, the claims were partially substantiated. On 11 others, Sachse was sanctioned.

At Plumb Elementary in Clearwater, he was reprimanded for calling in sick when the principal determined he was at a Chicago Bulls game. Less than a year later, he was written up for tying up a student with her own sweatshirt.

A similar story unfolded at Morgan Fitzgerald: Among other things, Sachse was reprimanded for trying to discipline unruly students by making them drag themselves across the floor with their hands. The "seal walk" one student called it.

Over and over, school officials expressed frustration with Sachse. In 1997, after a particularly harsh evaluation, former superintendent Howard Hinesley threatened to fire him. But the toughest punishment the district has imposed is a one-day suspension — in 2007.

"When do we say enough is enough? That's a difficult call," said Valerie Brimm, an administrator in Pinellas's Office of Professional Standards, which investigates teacher misconduct.

Has Sachse done enough? "Not for termination," Brimm said.

Sachse hails from the Chicago area and earned a bachelor's degree in physical education from Eastern Illinois University. He was a concrete finisher when he applied to be a Pinellas teacher. On a 1985 job application he wrote: "As I have always enjoyed athletics and children, the teaching profession offers me the opportunity to enjoy both."

Pinellas records show Sachse married in 1995 and divorced three years later. They also show he pled guilty and paid a $30 fine in 1999 for urinating in public.

After 10 years at Morgan Fitzgerald, the district put Sachse at John Hopkins Middle in St. Petersburg in 2007. He transferred to Oak Grove Middle in 2008, where he remains today.

Sachse declined to comment for this story and did not respond to phone calls and emails.

In a December interview before his death, Jade Moore, the late Pinellas union chief, said Sachse visited union headquarters often in early 2008, seeking help to leave John Hopkins.

"The principal there hated him," Moore said.

• • •

The note said, "Can you meet me by the dumpster tonight? From: Coach."

According to district records, Sachse, then at Morgan Fitzgerald, wrote it in December 2006 and gave it to two female students to give to a third female student. Another teacher saw it and told administrators.

The note was an inside joke gone bad, Sachse said. Rumor had it that two students, a girl and a boy, were kissing behind a Dumpster at school. Sachse knew them, so he came up with the idea of sending the note to the girl.

A Pinellas sheriff's detective concluded Sachse had no intention of meeting the student and nothing criminal was going on.

"I was just trying to be funny," Sachse told the detective.

But district officials weren't laughing. It wasn't the first time Sachse had been tied to inappropriate language and behavior around students.

• In October 2003, the school resource officer at Morgan Fitzgerald investigated a parent complaint that Sachse watched a girl while she was undressing in the locker room. Sasche told the officer he went into the girl's locker room, but only to get equipment. He said he wouldn't go in there again.

• In September 2005, another parent complained Sachse had threatened to pull her daughter's pants down while the girl was climbing on the bleachers. The teacher told investigators he did not make such a comment, but other girls backed their classmate.

Sachse's personnel file is checkered with similar complaints, including a girl who told investigators that when she asked Sachse what he got her for Valentine's Day, he said "13 inches."

In some cases, the allegations were deemed unsubstantiated. In some, the records don't say. In still others, officials suspected kids were lying.

Still, a district investigator referred to Sachse's reputation in a stern warning letter that followed the bleacher incident.

"I explained that the comment you made over a year ago (13 inches) has become an 'urban legend,' " wrote James T. Lott, in the district's Office of Professional Standards. "Students are talking about it and spinning it as a sexual connotation. Also girls at the school are referring to you as the 'perv.' "

Lott warned, "Never say anything to a student that is sarcastic or could be misconstrued."

In a letter, Sachse said the sanction was unwarranted.

"These types of accusations and rumors can quickly lead to the termination of a teacher's career," he wrote. "It is disappointing to me that allegations with no supporting evidence are given this much weight."

Like many districts, Pinellas follows a "progressive discipline" policy that gives teachers multiple chances, except in the most egregious cases, to fix problems,

After the Dumpster note, the district reprimanded Sachse. His discipline tally up to that point: three reprimands, three warning letters and at least four other write-ups.

• • •

There is no easy way to find out which teachers get in trouble a lot.

Their personnel files are public record, but they're not posted on the Web, and it can easily cost more than $100 to redact and copy a few files.

Inevitably, the ones that do surface raise a bigger question: If it's so hard to fire a teacher whose file is spilling over with reprimands, just throw in the thorny question of measuring teacher quality and think how tough it is to fire one who is quietly incompetent.

Pinellas found out this month.

In a rare decision, a state administrative law judge ruled that Curtis Brown, a former math teacher at John Hopkins Middle, was incompetent and insubordinate and should be fired. Among other things, district officials said he didn't prepare adequate lesson plans or teach assigned subject matter. He also reportedly fell asleep in class.

For months, administrators met with Brown frequently, offered him remedies and kept meticulous notes. For months, district legal staff gathered evidence, deposed witnesses and prepared legal documents.

On March 10 — nearly three years after a scathing evaluation — the Pinellas School Board finally fired him.

Moore, the late Pinellas union chief, defended the firing process. "Yeah it takes a long time to get rid of (a teacher). And it should," he said. "Don't think of teachers as factory line workers. It's a profession."

• • •

Two months after the Dumpster note, Sachse was in trouble again. This time, for reportedly hurling "f------ b----" at a co-worker.

That, and his failure to report the sandwich arrest from May 2006, led the School Board to punish him with a one-day suspension without pay. (The theft charges were dropped after Sachse completed a pretrial intervention program.)

It's unclear if Sachse has had any problems since. It's also unclear if his past two principals knew of his misconduct history.

Neither Maureen Thornton, the former John Hopkins principal, nor Dawn Coffin, the Oak Grove principal, returned calls for comment. Pinellas district spokeswoman Andrea Zahn said Thornton did not object to Sachse's placement. She said Coffin hired him because she needed a PE teacher with training to work with special education students — and Sachse has it.

Sachse talked to the Times last June after he entered an agreement with the state Education Practices Commission to be placed on two years' probation. The state recommended the penalty after investigating the Dumpster note, the alleged bleacher comment and the sandwich incident.

He said he was on medication and "just spaced out" with the sandwich.

He said the uproar over the Dumpster note was "baloney."

He said the girl who accused him of threatening to pull her pants down misheard him.

"I'm a goofball. I play with the kids a lot. That's the way I am," he said then.

Sachse told the Times he agreed to the state sanction so he could just move on.

"I only have seven years left (before retirement)," he said. "Then I'm done."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at or (727) 893-8873.


Other teachers with histories of misconduct

Thomas R. Schultz

Job: Former high school PE teacher

Years teaching: 1984-2006

School: Hillsborough High, Tampa

District: Hillsborough

Age: 47

Salary: $53,427

Discipline history:

• Authorities reprimanded him in 1987 for allegedly striking a student; in 1996 for an angry confrontation with an assistant principal; in 1997 for reportedly lying about his criminal history; and in 1998 for allegedly telling a student, "I will have your ass put in handcuffs."

• He also got into hot water in March 1995 for allegedly calling a student a "piece of s---"; in October 1995 for his "attitude, temper and interaction with students."

• The district suspended him without pay in 2002 after police arrested him on charges of solicitation of prostitution, possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. (The charges were not filed or dropped after he entered a misdemeanor intervention program.)

Final straw: In May 2006, Schultz tested positive for cocaine, district records show. He had signed an agreement in January 2003 that said he would immediately resign if he tested positive for any controlled or illegal substance. He resigned in July 2006.

State sanctions: In June 2004, the state Education Practices Commission put Schultz on two years' probation. In September 2006, the commission suspended him for a year, fined him $1,000 and put him on probation for another three years.

Schultz's explanation: He said in a brief phone interview: "You have paperwork in front of you and know zero about what really happened and what the real story is." He then hung up.

The rest of the story: He is still eligible to teach.

Shirley P. Johnson

Job: Former kindergarten teacher

Years teaching: 1987-2006

School: Walsingham Elementary, Largo

District: Pinellas

Age: 68

Salary: $54,400 at retirement

Discipline history:

• District records show Johnson was written up at least 13 times, seven of them for "excessive force" or battery on a student (in 1989, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2002 and twice in 2005).

• In the February 1994 incident, students said she slammed a bathroom door on the hand of a student — an incident that reportedly severed a tendon in the student's hand. Johnson said another student shut the door. District records don't show any finding of fault.

The final straw: In August 2005, Johnson reportedly became angry when her students had to wait in line behind fifth-graders in the cafeteria. She reportedly pushed students into each other and shoved their lunch trays down the line. The school board suspended her for three days without pay, mandated an anger management class and required her to retire at the end of the school year.

State sanction: The Education Practices Commission, in October 2007, suspended Johnson's teaching certificate for one year.

Johnson's explanation: She said in a phone interview that the cafeteria allegations are "a bunch of crap" and that she merely tapped some shoulders and told the fifth-graders to hurry. She said kids often lie and administrators often take the parents' side, whether it's justified or not. "This happens more often than you know," she said. "And this is why teachers leave teaching."

The rest of the story: Johnson receives a $1,337 monthly pension.

Sharion Thurman

Job: High school English teacher

Years teaching: 1986-present

School: Gibbs High

District: Pinellas

Age: 58

Salary: $61,050

Discipline history:

• Authorities reprimanded her in 1993 and 1997 for poor judgment; in 1998 and 1999 for issues with her lesson plans; again in 1999 for not following school policy regarding grades; and in 2005 for not following board policy regarding controversial material.

• The School Board suspended her for three days without pay in 1987 for inappropriate class management.

• It suspended her for 25 days without pay in 2006 for reportedly stuffing a ballot box so her niece could be elected home­coming queen. State records say she admitted her misconduct to school officials.

State sanction: In January, the Education Practices Commission put Thurman on two years' probation for the ballot-box allegation and ordered her to take a college-level course in ethics.

Thurman's explanation: "I'm a little controversial," she said in a phone interview, with a laugh. "I don't always see eye to eye with those who have authority." She would not address specific allegations but said of her teaching skill, "I am qualified. I am experienced."

The rest of the story, Part 1: In a February 1999 letter to an administrator in the Office of Professional Standards, Thurman wrote, in response to the possibility of disciplinary action against her, "Who do you white people think you are, that, because other people — parents, administrators, and so on — tell you such and such is, you go on their word without talking to the principal character — me, or others like me? … Because I am African-American, and because in no uncertain way I am not your pliable, amenable, acceptable Negro, then you look for ways to, in the words of the teacher masses, 'get me.' "

The rest of the story, Part 2: Gibbs principal Antelia Campbell told state investigators Thurman should have been recommended for firing after the ballot-box incident: "If she would do this with homecoming votes, I can't even begin to imagine the creative grading that is taking place in her classroom … It is difficult for students to learn from someone who is so untrustworthy and dishonest."