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Belying the spiffy look, iffy relations
Several Stewart Middle teachers file a grievance against the principal over dress.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published October 29, 2007
ZEPHYRHILLS - Doesn't matter if they're blue, black or pin-striped, Stewart Middle School principal Jackson "Buff" Johnson has no patience for jeans on teachers.
He's no fan of tongue studs, either.
Since the new school year started, Johnson has made his fashion views clear while attempting to enforce the district's revised "professional appearance" policy.
"We want to make sure we dress professionally, because we are held to that standard," Johnson says.
The school's teachers agree with the sentiment, but they're not too keen on Johnson's method. Several have filed a grievance against the principal, claiming he has stepped beyond the policy with "arbitrary and capricious" implementation.
"It was almost bordering on what we considered creating a uniform," United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb said.
Webb suggested that the principal should not be banning types of fabric, certain colors of clothing or styles of shoes. Neither should he suddenly demand a teacher remove the tongue stud she has worn since being hired.
If he had concerns, she added, Johnson should have consulted with the staff first, as the School Board stated when adopting the amended policy over the summer.
"The teachers, quite frankly, had had enough of being treated like children," Webb said.
The issue of teachers' appearance has proven a sticky one since superintendent Heather Fiorentino first announced her desire to spiff up educators' look more than a year ago. Fiorentino's call for a more detailed teacher dress code - she wanted to get rid of capris, for instance - found no takers on the School Board, and it angered the teaching staff.
A committee of teachers and administrators, which Fiorentino convened to further investigate the possibilities, also found few problems with the existing rules. It determined the few egregious instances, like teachers with too-short skirts, got handled quickly at the principal level, where the committee recommended the control remain.
Just one big change emerged: a ban on visible tattoos and body piercings that don't meet the accepted community standard.
Principals then got the word to remind their staff members of the professional appearance guidelines, including the tattoo and piercing provision. If individual schools wanted to tighten their procedures, the board said it should occur cooperatively between the staff and principal.
That's what Johnson contends he did.
"Actually, we gave teachers an opportunity at the end of last year to review and give input," he said, adding that not much changed.
Afterward, he added the rules to the teacher handbook and began enforcing them.
"They were kind of disappointed," Johnson said.
Webb said the teachers tried to deal with their concerns individually. But it soon became apparent the issue was pervasive, with no resolution in sight. So the union made its official complaint.
"It is our contention they went far beyond what is the community standard," Webb said. "Our understanding is ... the whole point of this revised policy was not to crack down and make dramatic changes."
Board members - none of whom had received calls about this matter - said they were torn by this turn of events.
On the one hand, they want the principals to maintain control over this policy.
"We gave the principals the responsibility to handle the issues at their own schools," Vice Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said. "I certainly think the principals need to hold their teachers to a standard of dressing professionally. We'll see how this process works."
On the other hand, they lamented that the issue of teacher clothing mattered at all, except in the most obviously excessive cases.
"I hate it when this gets attention and it becomes a morale-lowering thing in the schools," Chairwoman Marge Whaley said. "You should be concentrating on what is happening in the classroom, and not on what teachers are wearing."
For now, the Stewart Middle grievance is in abeyance, employee relations director Terry Rhum said, while the teachers and principal sit down to see if they can reach a compromise.
If they find common ground, the complaint will be settled. If not, it will continue through the district chain of command.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.