BROOKSVILLE — It was an emotional subject for band director Joe Harrin.
Faced with the prospect that Parrott Middle School's band would be eliminated for the coming school year, Harrin helped mobilize a group of supporters to speak during a Hernando County School Board meeting in May. For more than an hour, dozens of people advocated for band, music and the devastating effects that losing the band at Parrott could have on Hernando High School's Royale Regiment band, which receives most of its students from Parrott.
But Harrin's efforts have landed him in some hot water with Hernando High principal Leechele Booker.
After the May 6 board meeting, Booker gave Harrin, who served as the band director for both Hernando High and Parrott this past school year, a "letter of direction," reprimanding him for his actions.
"This letter of direction is being given to you for assembling a group of students and parents from (Hernando) to attend a school board meeting with the sole purpose of voicing a complaint about the assumed demise of the band program at (Parrott)," she wrote in a May 9 letter.
In her letter, Booker wrote that Harrin failed to follow proper procedures for lodging a complaint.
"Please keep in mind that you have an obligation to make reasonable precautions to distinguish between your personal views and views that negatively represent (Hernando High)," she said.
She said she was concerned that although most of the problems he mentioned related to Parrott, the majority of parents appeared to be from Hernando High.
Booker said Harrin also didn't provide parents with all available information, failing to mention that he could, in fact, continue to serve at both schools and that low band enrollment at Parrott precludes the school from needing a full-time instructor.
"Yet, you failed to share that with your parents and encouraged them to voice their concerns based on misinformation," she wrote.
In the future, she said, concerns of this type should be shared with school administrators first.
In a rebuttal letter, Harrin adamantly disagreed with the assessment and said Booker made inaccurate statements in her letter.
He said the purpose of the gathering was not to voice a complaint, but to request that the School Board reconsider Parrott's start and end times for the coming year.
"At no time was a formal complaint lodged against any individual by any speaker during the citizens input time," he said. "Any reference to the comments as a complaint would be a matter of opinion rather than fact."
He said he never wanted to split his time between the two schools but had agreed to work at both schools to give the Hernando County School District a chance to hire a high-quality director to take over Parrott's program.
He said the time changes in the school day at Parrott would make it impossible for him to work there without his family being affected. He said it would also damage both programs because of overlapping responsibilities.
He said band enrollment at Parrott has declined for many reasons, not simply because of a lack of interest. Many students would like to participate in band but can't because they are required to take remedial classes, he said.
"The accusation that I failed to inform parents of this and to describe it as 'misinformation' is personally offensive and wrong," Harrin wrote.
He also wrote that parents were not led to believe anything other than what was "abundantly clear to anyone involved with the Parrott band."
"The band has been shrinking over the past years, and I was told that if I did not work at both schools, then there would be no band at Parrott," he said. "This is not an 'assumed demise.' "
He has requested that the letter be removed from his file.
Tampa employment and labor attorney Cynthia Sass said a public employee who complains about something of public concern generally has a First Amendment right to do so and not be disciplined. She stressed that the issue would need to be of a public concern, not a private or personal concern.
She also said a person's identity as an employee of the district should not affect the employee's ability to voice concerns, so long as the person does not speak within the scope of his or her official duties.
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes on Twitter.