Hopkins Middle School principal is replaced

Maureen C. Thornton, 50, has been placed on paid leave.

Maureen C. Thornton, 50, has been placed on paid leave.

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas school officials abruptly replaced John Hopkins Middle School principal Maureen Thornton on Thursday, disclosing that she is the subject of an internal investigation.

Thornton, 50, was placed on paid administrative leave. The investigation by the district's Office of Professional Standards began Nov. 11, and officials said it won't be finished until after January.

Sticking to standard practice, the district said it would not release details until the investigation is completed.

Thornton, whose financial problems have been mounting and who faced questions last year about how she spent $300 in PTA funds, said Thursday night she was not ready to comment.

The new principal is Bob Poth, a veteran administrator and former teacher whose daughters once attended the school.

Poth, 49, met with the faculty Thursday morning and said he planned to be in the car line this morning to meet parents. He also said he plans to visit every classroom and address students today at three assemblies.

John Hopkins is a school of about 1,300 students known for its magnet programs in art, music, drama and journalism.

Thornton was in the news in February when her estranged husband, Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, was killed by police after he went on a shooting rampage in Kirkwood, Mo., near St. Louis, killing five people and injuring two others during a city council meeting.

Maureen Thornton filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in September, reporting assets of $340,415, including interest in a St. Petersburg home, and liabilities of $468,758, including a mortgage and more than $90,000 in loans and credit card debt.

Also in September, Thornton was sued by her brother-in-law, who alleges that she was part of a scheme to gain control of her mother-in-law's homes in St. Petersburg and St. Louis.

The lawsuit alleges Thornton remained silent when her husband secured a home loan using his brother's name and credit. The home is in foreclosure.

Financial issues also arose at the school.

According to minutes of a November 2007 PTA meeting, the executive board questioned why Thornton, with no authorization, spent $300 in PTA funds to attend an educational conference. The incident prompted the board to tighten its accounting and limit control of funds to the treasurer.

After 19 years as an educator in the St. Louis area, Thornton left her job as an assistant principal at a Missouri middle school and came to St. Petersburg in 2003.

The district hired her as a special education teacher and behavior specialist at Hopkins, but she soon became an assistant principal at Safety Harbor Middle. Then-superintendent Clayton Wilcox made her the Hopkins principal in 2005.

Thursday, the school's focus turned to Poth, who is in his 26th year with Pinellas schools. After 15 years as a teacher, he was principal at Ridgecrest, Jamerson and Cypress Woods elementaries.

Last year, Wilcox made him part of a program to groom new leaders. Poth helped oversee 43 elementary schools until Tuesday, when deputy superintendent Harry Brown asked him to take over Hopkins.

Poth said he asked if he would be the acting principal and Brown said no, "It's your school."

Asked what he would say to students, Poth acknowledged the situation was awkward.

"There are times in life when you don't have all the answers," he said, "but one thing you can share is your passion."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Hopkins Middle School principal is replaced 12/05/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 10:35pm]

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