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D'Angelo v. School Bd. of Polk County

Florida is not the kind of place you move to for the public schools. Polk County, Florida? Yeah, ummm… lets just say that it is a struggle to keep creationism out of the science classes there.

Florida’s public high schools have some of the worst student retention rates in the country, with half qualifying as “dropout factories,” four times the national average, according to a new analysis of U.S. Education Department data.

[Johns Hopkins researcher Hopkins Bob] Balfanz says he has a hypothesis about why Florida’s numbers are so high: large schools and a focus on test scores. Schools with an average of 2,000 or 3,000 students are fairly common throughout the state, Balfanz said.

“That’s an easy place for kids to be anonymous. That’s a key driver of kids dropping out,” Balfanz said.

In addition, the state’s accountability is focused on test scores, he said. That includes passing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, to earn a diploma. With the emphasis on test scores instead of graduation rates, schools aren’t heavily penalized for low retention rates, Balfanz said. (source)

With this as a backdrop, let me tell you the story of D’Angelo v. School Board of Polk County. The place, the county where Grady Judd presides over his campaign against the Constitution. The year, 2002. enter Michael D’Angelo – the new principal for Kathleen High School, a “D” rated educational institution. That means that if you graduate from there, you might be able to color within the lines.

Within a year, D’Angelo raises it to a “C” school.

After he learned that his school would not get any additional staff or funding, D’Angelo began working to convert the school to “charter status.” He started attending seminars, holding meetings, and raising parental support for the project.

D’Angelo wrote that he, “in good conscience, could not continue the practice of providing an inferior educational opportunity to [the] ESE students [at Kathleen High].” He explained that, “with[] the Charter opportunities granted by the State of Florida, [he] would be remiss in [his] duties as the leader of Kathleen High School if [he] did not explore any and all possibilities to improve the quality of education at [the school].”(source)

This guy sounds like a saint.

He explained that his “number one duty, and the duty of any principal, [wa]s to do whatever [he could] for the kids.” According to D’Angelo, “if [principals] don’t do everything [they] possibly can to create avenues for kids to succeed, then . . . [they] are [not] doing [their] duty.” One aspect of D’Angelo’s “job as a principal” was to “provide the best educational opportunities [he could],” and he “felt that [his] responsibility as a leader [of Kathleen High] was to make sure that [he] exhausted every avenue that [he] could, and Charter happened to be one.”(source)

This sure doesn’t sound like the lazy administrators at my public high school.

I interviewed a schoolteacher who educated me on the the advantages of charter status:

  1. The school can depart from the state guidelines.
  2. The school can stop “teaching to the FCAT” and start teaching students in an individualized manner.
  3. The class sizes go down.

The cons:

  1. For the students, nothing.
  2. For the faculty, the pay rates are typically lower.

Needless to say, D’Angelo met resistance to the move. The faculty voted down the proposal to turn Kathleen High into a charter school. I suppose that I can understand voting against your own pay going down. Therefore, I can (on one level) sympathize with the teachers who figured that their pay was already low enough. On the other hand, the stereotype that I hold for teachers is someone who would gladly do the job for half the money if it meant doing more for the kids. Maybe I over-idealize teachers, but I digress…

After the vote, D’Angelo gets a “[h]igh quality performance” rating from the district. He is subsequently fired three days later.

D’Angelo filed a complaint in federal district court that alleged the school board had terminated him in retaliation for his exercise of rights protected by the First Amendment. The action proceeded to a jury trial, and after the close of D’Angelo’s case-in-chief, the school board moved, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a), for judgment as a matter of law. In his argument against the motion, D’Angelo clarified that he was “raising First Amendment claims on petitioning, association and speech related to charter only.”(source)

The 11th Circuit ruled that “A Public Employee Must Speak Both on a Matter of Public Concern and as a Citizen to Receive Protection Under the First Amendment.” Since D’Angelo was not speaking as a citizen, but rather as a principal, the First Amendment did not apply to him.

D’Angelo bucked his bosses in favor of his kids and lost his job for it. I can see the logic in the belief that had the court held otherwise, it could have given public employees the right to be insubordinate and to shield that insubordination with the First Amendment.

However, D’Angelo was also a citizen. The 11th Circuit, which has recently become a First Amendment Grinch, seems to suggest that if D’Angelo had engaged in this activism as a personal frolic, he would have been protected. But, since he was trying to improve the public schools as part of his duty to the students, his speech and petition rights evaporated.

The decision isn’t all that nutty, and i suppose that I can live with it. That isn’t to say that I am not uncomfortable with it on a Constitutional level. If an employee can be fired for petitioning the government, no matter what, then what does the First Amendment mean? I could see if he was standing in front of the school protesting (and even then I’d prefer to see his conduct protected), and disrupting the educational process. He wasn’t. He was working within the system to bring change to the system.

Regardless of any First Amendment issues, to fire a principal who is this committed to his kids was plain idiocy. I presume that the administrators responsible for it were products of the Polk County school system themselves.

By the way, what has happened since D’Angelo was fired?

Kathleen High returned to “D” status, where it remains today. (source), and it is listed as one of Polk County’s six “dropout factories.” (source). But, at least the Polk County School Board is safe from its administrators who commit their careers to helping the kids under their care.

See D’Angelo v. School Bd. of Polk County, ___ F.3d ____ (11th Cir. 2007).

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