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When trying to be fair takes a turn for the worst

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 8, 2002


Everybody says that John Nicely is one of the best-loved high school principals ever. Parents love him. Teachers love him. The students at Tarpon Springs High School cried and gave him hugs of farewell on Tuesday, which was his last day on the job after 11 years.

Being well-loved, of course, does not excuse Nicely from the rules of the Pinellas County schools.

But the question is whether being removed for the mistake he made was too much of a punishment. At first I thought what he did was an outrageous firing offense. I hate it when the facts then intrude and cloud up a perfectly good snap judgment.

Here is what Nicely did.

Tarpon Springs High School has its own absenteeism policy. The policy says that missing 10 days of class means getting an automatic F. However, the policy gives the principal wide latitude. In practice, it is possible for a student to catch a break, especially if enough of the absences are "verified," acknowledged by a student's parents.

So it was not some radical new thing in January and early February when Nicely made a deal with six students who wanted to avoid failing grades. They would not get an automatic F -- as long as they had no more unexcused absences for the rest of the year.

This was a principal acting within his discretion, making a deal with students to get them to come to school. It was not an especially lenient deal, either, unless you are a "zero tolerance" zealot who thinks it is better to flunk 'em than help 'em. What Nicely gave his kids was the chance to earn the grade that they would otherwise earn.

Then Nicely took another step that was, no question, more troublesome.

One of the students applying to college, and being considered for a scholarship, asked Nicely not to send her F-grade that was on the books, but her "real" grade, the one she was earning based on her work in class.

That is what Nicely did. There was a high school transcript that had an F on it, because of her absences. But for the purpose of the college, he sent the grade that she was on her way to earning, if she fulfilled her deal.

This is a bad practice. You do not want to be monkeying around with a school district's reputation with college admissions offices. Pinellas has one of the biggest school systems in the United States. If there are any scandals about the accuracy of the information it is sending to colleges and universities, then they all are going to know it.

Neither is it a "victimless" situation. "There's only so many places in these colleges," School Board attorney John Bowen points out. "When somebody gets accepted based on a grade that might later change, then somebody else has been excluded." He said the right thing to do was to send the accurate grade with an explanation.

On Nicely's behalf, however, you could argue that his action was more "honest" and "accurate" than just sending the raw F.

College admissions can be a cold-hearted, statistical process, and even the mere whiff of an F could be fatal. I am not confident the computer would read a letter of explanation from Nicely and put a little asterisk beside the student's score. If she was living up to her end of the deal, and earning a "real" grade that more accurately reflected her performance, wasn't that the fairer grade to send?

So I would have given Nicely a big, showy reprimand to show the colleges the school district is serious about the integrity of records. I would have told him not to do it again. I then would name a committee (hey, I'm pretending to be a bureaucrat here) to find a better way of recording and reporting these provisional F's that might still be upgraded.

The closest precedent to Nicely's case is that of Sharon Lambeth, former principal of Countryside High School, who was removed in 1998 after allowing a football player to retake tests after graduation. Lambeth is suing, saying she would not have been so harshly treated if she were a man.

Conveniently, along comes a man. Rather than defend his conduct as distinctly different from Lambeth's, the school district has meted out the same punishment. Good news for the court case, bad news for Tarpon Springs.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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