Shocking firing

Pat McGuinness mentored some of the brightest minds at the Advanced Technologies Academy, the local magnet high school that’s been honored as one of the best schools in the country.

Yet this summer, while the Clark County School District was rehiring 36 teachers who had been let go because of multiple suspensions or unsatisfactory evaluations, the system saw fit to terminate Mr. McGuinness.

His offense? He missed a deadline for licensing paperwork because he had been in a devastating car accident. The crash that nearly killed Mr. McGuinness left him in a drug-induced coma for weeks and led to the amputation of his left arm.

Worse, Mr. McGuinness’ bosses apparently knew about his condition and used it as an opportunity to get rid of him – not by sending him to another campus to teach, but by booting him from the system entirely.

“It’s not like I fell off the face of the earth,” he told the Review-Journal’s Trevon Milliard.

“I’ve given 11 years of my life. I have an accident and now this. For what? What did I do?”

Zachary Mirman, who graduated from the academy this year as valedictorian and considered Mr. McGuinness a mentor, said the teacher’s style was unconventional.

“We all knew the school administration didn’t like how he ran his class,” said Mr. Mirman, who is majoring in computer sciences and math at the University of California, Berkeley. “As a teacher, he was different. He gave us the tools and told us to report back. Free form.”

The accident happened April 29, well before the end of the 2011-12 school year. Mr. McGuinness says the completed paperwork to renew his teaching license, due by June 7, was in his vehicle’s glove compartment at the time of the crash.

His fellow teachers immediately learned Mr. McGuinness was hospitalized in critical condition. Students found out soon after. He frequently had visitors in the hospital, and a collection was deposited in Mr. McGuinness’ bank account.

But the school’s principal, Karen Diamond, claimed to have no knowledge of Mr. McGuinness’ whereabouts. When he missed his license-renewal deadline, Mr. McGuinness was terminated. School district human resources officials even asked the principal if there were special circumstances, and she said there were none, Mr. Milliard reported. Mr. McGuinness said he learned he had lost his job when he finally returned to the school this summer to pick up his schedule for the 2012-13 school year – after Ms. Diamond had retired.

“My gosh, why didn’t the school district contact us?” asked Nevada Department of Education licensing supervisor Jeanette Calkins. “We would have given an extension without question, absolutely.”

The 51-year-old reapplied for his license on July 31 and had a half-dozen job interviews, but he was not rehired.

Mr. McGuinness, who lost his apartment and recently moved into a studio with his 14-year-old son, made a last-ditch appeal directly to the School Board and to Superintendent Dwight Jones last week, during the public comment period of a board meeting. To his credit, Mr. Jones said he “was not aware of your situation or story, and we’ll follow up immediately tomorrow.” On Monday, Mr. McGuinness signed the paperwork for a state disability retirement benefit that pays about $1,250 per month.

That’s a good first step toward righting the wrongs Mr. McGuinness has dealt with. But the school district must do more, and fast. Mr. McGuinness said he will pursue a wrongful termination complaint against the district. “I’m not trying to piss anyone off. I just want my job back. I don’t want to go on disability.”

These are the kinds of cases that ultimately cost taxpayers large sums of money. It’s maddening enough when the public must fork over six-figure settlements to reinstated public employees who were defensibly fired for nonperformance or misconduct. But it’s even worse to see a teacher canned in such a cruel and unjustified manner when the Clark County School District needs all the good educators it can get. This case appears to perfectly play into union arguments that principals are political creatures who can’t be trusted to treat teachers fairly. It’s a public relations disaster that could hurt ongoing work to improve accountability and achievement in our schools.

Whatever Mr. McGuinness might have done to fall into disfavor with the academy’s administrators, he didn’t deserve this. The school district must figure out how to put Mr. McGuinness back in the classroom. It must investigate Mr. McGuinness’ firing and find out why information about his accident didn’t reach human resources. Then, if it can be determined that such information was knowingly and deliberately withheld in order to harm Mr. McGuinness, the school district should take action against those involved instead.

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