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Amid discontent at Westside Elementary, principal Dominick Ferello departs

SPRING HILL — Embattled Westside Elementary principal Dominick Ferello sat down with his teachers and staff this week and offered a farewell and some words of wisdom.

"Every decision I made I thought was best for kids," Ferello on Thursday recalled telling the assembly as superintendent Bryan Blavatt looked on. "I didn't care about your personal agendas. Let me give you some advice: Don't be steeped in the status quo. It just doesn't work."

With that, Ferello said, he wished them well.

Ferello, 55, contends that it was his attempt to change the status quo at Westside that prompted more than a dozen teachers to send scathing letters to the superintendent's office earlier this year complaining about his leadership.

Ferello — for now, at least — is bound for an assistant principal post at Eastside Elementary. It would be his third position since he joined the district three years ago.

In his first interview with the Times since the news broke of the teacher discontent, Ferello denied teachers' allegations that he led by bullying them, but said he volunteered to transfer for the sake of his family and for the students at Westside.

The media reports of the turmoil at the school were painful, Ferello said.

"I will not put my 86-year-old father, my wife and two kids through any more torment in this county than they've already been through," he said. "I can't take a chance that will happen again."

Blavatt, who started April 1, said he understood Ferello's request and said he is happy to honor it.

"I've always respected that family comes first, but what really got my attention was him saying that as long as he remained there, there would be controversy and it would be detrimental to kids," Blavatt said.

Blavatt added a caveat, though: Ferello might ultimately wind up in a district-level position.

There are at least two spots opening at the district due to retirements next month, and Blavatt plans to submit an initial reorganization plan to the School Board that, if approved, would probably create more.

For Ferello, Eastside "is only a parking spot right now," Blavatt said.

The teacher union hopes that is the case, the union president said Thursday.

The union threatened in April to hold a vote of no-confidence in Ferello, but backed down to give Blavatt a chance to assess the situation. The union respects Blavatt's decision not to fire Ferello but stands by its assertion that he should not be a school-level administrator, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.

"If there is no other location (at the district level), we may have to live with (Eastside), but we don't think it's the strongest move," Vitalo said.

"We have a new superintendent that's walking into the middle of this and you have to give him the opportunity to really look at it. We've had 21/2 years with Ferello, the superintendent has had less than two months."

Ferello was hired in 2008 by then-superintendent Wayne Alexander to lead Explorer K-8, where he faced similar accusations of rough treatment of staff.

"I'm emotional and I'm loud. It's part of who I am," Ferello said. "I think that's misread. I've been extremely respectful to everybody."

Ferello said he was tainted by an association with Alexander, who was not well liked by many in the district because of his own brusque style.

"That was a black cloud over my head from the day I got here," Ferello said.

Ferello defended his tenure at Westside, citing third-grade reading scores released this week that put the school near the top of the district.

"Tell me what kind of leadership went on there," he said. "It must have been pretty good. I'm a change agent that makes things happen."

Vitalo countered that Westside was already high-performing when Ferello arrived and that its single gender class program — a pilot program and the only one of its kind in Hernando — was already well under way and successful.

"The school wasn't broken," Vitalo said. "That's one of the reasons he needs to be removed, because he doesn't recognize the type of school he was working at."

Ferello praised Blavatt, who could have caved in to the pressure to get rid of him.

"This is a man who could have come in and said, 'I'm not going to deal with this political mess, you're gone,' " Ferello said. "But he's a professional man and said, 'Somebody out there doesn't like you.' "

Eastside assistant principal John Shepherd is retiring this year, so the position is opening.

Eastside principal Bev Chapin did not return a call for comment Thursday. Ferello says he and Chapin have a good rapport.

Blavatt said Chapin was "very excited about having an experienced administrator" in Ferello.

Blavatt acknowledged that teachers and staff at Eastside may already have a prejudice against Ferello.

"I appreciate that, but I've always been of the belief that there's more to it than what you read in the papers," Blavatt said. "I would hope the general public, without having experience with him, would not jump to conclusions."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Amid discontent at Westside Elementary, principal Dominick Ferello departs 05/27/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 27, 2010 8:16pm]
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