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Popular former administrator sues Pinellas County School Board

TARPON SPRINGS — The Pinellas County School Board is facing an age discrimination lawsuit from Tarpon Springs High's popular former vice principal.

Wayne McKnight, 52, who was also the school's athletic director, has been denied available jobs at more than 20 schools since his controversial ouster in June, the lawsuit states.

He's largely been passed over for younger, less experienced applicants, in some cases not getting so much as an interview, said Robert McKee, Mc­Knight's attorney.

Dunedin Middle School, Clearwater High School, and Seminole High School are among the schools who chose not to hire McKnight.

"We're seeing a pattern of Mr. Mc­Knight applying for positions he's clearly qualified to fill, and being passed over," McKee said. "The burden under the law shifts to the School Board to come forward with some not discriminatory reason for not hiring him."

Federal law protects people 40 years or older from being discharged or denied job opportunities due to their age.

McKnight now works as a behavioral specialist at Clearwater Intermediate School for $31.86 per hour, down from the $40.46 he made as assistant principal at Tarpon Springs.

He's seeking lost pay and pension in addition to damages for mental anguish and emotional distress.

"This is a huge professional embarrassment for him," McKee said. "He's been humiliated, and it's caused him a lot of stress. This isn't an easy thing to go through."

School Board spokeswoman Melanie Marquez declined to comment on a pending lawsuit.

When an administrative position is vacant, the school's principal holds interviews and then makes a recommendation to the School Board.

So, according to the allegations, either multiple school principals independently rejected McKnight based on his age, or School Board members used age to overturn principals' recommendations.

McKnight's ouster from Tarpon Springs made waves for the district in June when, after nearly a decade at the school, his contract was not renewed. The decision came at the recommendation of Principal Clint Herbic.

The lawsuit shows McKnight began quietly searching for jobs six months before his contract's end, even as students and parents rallied to his support at board meetings and on Facebook.

Herbic, through his assistant, declined to comment.

But Herbic's displeasure with McKnight is documented.

In a "success plan" for McKnight, Herbic, 49, wrote, "You have been quick to assist others, but be careful that you do not neglect your own duties in doing so." He also wrote that "loyalty to the administration team and the principal must become a priority."

Records show McKnight faced discipline from Pinellas County Schools four times. He got one day of unpaid suspension in 2011 for giving excused absences to 18 students without evidence, allowing some of them to skip final exams. He was reprimanded the same year for naming a physical education assistant a head coach in a way that broke county rules.

There's no direct evidence the School Board discriminated based on age, McKee said. But, he added, hard evidence is often not needed in discrimination cases.

Rather, he said, he only has to show McKnight was qualified and that he was passed over in favor of younger, less experienced candidates.

When asked whether McKnight's previous discipline, rather than age, might factor in McKnight's failed job search, McKee said no.

"I find it hard to believe all these school principals would come to the same conclusion for the same reasons, absent some whispering campaign," he said.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Brittany Alana Davis can be contacted at bdavis@tampabay.com or (850) 323-0353.

Popular former administrator sues Pinellas County School Board 04/27/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 26, 2013 7:08pm]
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