Orange Park High teacher keeps his job

Wesley LeBlanc
Posted 4/11/18

FLEMING ISLAND – For over an hour, teachers, past students and parents detailed why they believe former Orange Park High art teacher Michael Bowman should be reinstated.

And it worked. …

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Orange Park High teacher keeps his job

Posted

FLEMING ISLAND – For over an hour, teachers, past students and parents detailed why they believe former Orange Park High art teacher Michael Bowman should be reinstated.

And it worked. Impassioned pleas from the speakers convinced the Clay County School Board to reinstate Bowman at the board’s April 5 meeting at the Fleming Island High Teacher Training Center.

While some of the details regarding his dismissal remain unclear due to the school district’s human resource confidentiality rules, it was apparent that Bowman was charged for a crime involving some sort of work scheme. While the company Bowman was involved with might have seemed legitimate – he received pay and a W2 as well as training as part of the scheme – he and 300 others were duped and subsequently charged with financial crimes. According to Bowman’s lawyer, Mark Levine, this crime does not fall under a category in which the teacher must be terminated, however.

“What you should consider tonight, as you should in any termination proceeding, is his prior discipline, which is none, his reputation, his value and the type of offense which he was convicted of,” Levine said. “If you walked in off the street and you didn’t know that this was an agenda item for termination, and you didn’t read anything about it, you would think that people were talking about Michael Bowman so that you could give him an award.”

“We aren’t going to ask for a reward tonight but you can give him something. You can give him the ability to maintain his integrity and to stay and do his job in the school district as he’s done so often before and will continue to do,” Levine continued.

Levine’s comments were backed up by 20 other speakers, including former student Jaime Reeves.

“I was known as that bad kid that wasn’t going to graduate,” said Reeves, who did end up graduating. “He basically gave me the outlook on life of ‘it’s not always getting punished for the bad things but if you do something good, it is going to be noticed’ and I feel like [Bowman] taking me in showed me that.”

Reeves credits Bowman as the sole reason he made it through school.

“He is the reason I graduated from Orange Park High School,” he said.

One of Bowman’s students, Tyler Jump, eventually became a teacher at Clay Hill Elementary and does all he can to mimic the greatness Bowman exudes as a teacher.

“The day I walked through the doors at Orange Park High School, I knew [Bowman] was a teacher that students, and myself, could count on and he was,” Jump said. “When I started as a first-year teacher at a Title 1 school, there are only a few teachers that I can mimic in my classroom and one of those was Mr. Bowman.”

Betsy Reagor – local representative for the Clay County Education Association teachers’ union – used her time at the podium to remind the board that there is a choice to be made and it is a choice to be made by them.

“The two people who had the most intimate knowledge of the case, the prosecuting attorney and federal judge, both stated that they thought he should retain his teaching position,” Reagor said, commenting that even the OPHS principal recommended him for reappointment. “School Board policy 2.17 states that the school board may dismiss any employee for just cause. May. That word means you have some flexibility here and that you are not required to dismiss Mr. Bowman.”

To conclude the public discussion, Bowman himself took to the stand and through tears, asked that he be given his job back.

“Why fire a teacher that’s been efficient and effective for over a decade if he made one mistake four years ago?” Bowman asked. “I’m a good teacher. Please reconsider.”

After a brief discussion, board member Janice Kerekes made a motion to deny School Superintendent Addison Davis’ recommendation to dismiss Bowman. However, after a lot of back and forth with School Board Attorney David D’Agata and board members, board member Ashley Gilhousen suggested Kerekes rescind her motion and then see if a board member would make a motion to pass Davis’ recommendation.

Chairman Carol Studdard then called the question and asked for a motion, which died for lack of a second from the dais, a decision that was met with crying, hugs and applause for nearly five minutes.

Davis responded to the failed recommendation saying that the request in no way reflected his personal thoughts on Bowman but instead, was a decision he had to make based on legal counsel.

In other business, the school board reconvened to school safety and arming school personnel in the aftermath of new state laws aimed at improving school safety. One of the laws allows county sheriffs to establish a Guardian Program with a school board’s approval.

The Guardian Program boils down to allowing teachers who master a set of strict qualifications to carry a concealed weapon on campus and use it if the need arose.

Reagor once more spoke from the podium and voiced disgust with the bill.

“When I read [the legislature about the Guardian Program] I was disgusted,” Reagor said. “I can’t stand the thought of my children attending school where media specialists and guidance counselors and PE coaches are packing heat. As a mom, I want my kids to be safe at school but I want there to be common sense about it.

“Having non-law enforcement officers running around with a gun on their hip? No thanks,” Reagor said.

Graham Yirka, a Fleming Island High School student, disagreed with Rager.

“I could give a lot of what ifs too but I like to look at what is and there is a real threat of not just shootings, but any violence in school. I don’t go to school thinking I’m going to die at school, and I’m glad I don’t have that fear, but it’s a possibility,” Yirka said. “Saying that arming teachers, though, will cause them to have two jobs, implying that they’ll also be law enforcement, is not the case because 12 percent of the Florida population concealed carries on a regular basis.”

He said arming teachers would not equate to a second job calling it instead, “just protection.”

“I would be very comfortable with teachers who are trained, who know the law, who are responsible teachers – I would be very comfortable with them concealed carrying in school,” Yirka said.

After public discussion concluded, Chairman Studdard told the board that it was time to make a decision.

“This board has been passive [on this bill],” Studdard said. “This board needs to make a statement. People need to know how this school board feels.”

Shortly after, the school board did just that, voting to reaffirm their school board policy 2.36, which reads, “trained and licensed officers employed by local, state or federal law enforcement agencies shall be the only individuals authorized to possess firearms on Clay County School Board property,” in a motion that passed 5-0.

Also in other business, the court case regarding House Bill 7069 has concluded with the state legislature winning over the school districts that sued over the bill, including Clay County.

School Board Attorney David D’Agata informed the board that the school districts might appeal the decision.

Davis also spoke on the upcoming April 20 student walkout planned in the Clay County School District explaining his support for the walkout, specifically citing that he supports Clay County students demonstrating their feelings on the Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that claimed the lives of 15 students and two staff. He said he will work with schools to ensure the walkout is safe and done within the law on school grounds, however, if any student leaves campus, that will be considered truancy.

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