LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco County School District has launched an investigation into allegations that Sunlake High School principal Garry Walthall made antigay and abusive comments to and about assistant principal Deborah Lepley.
Lepley, threatened with the nonrenewal of her contract amid concerns raised about her performance, hired a lawyer to answer what he called "bogus allegations" against her. Attorney Jim Lowy used that formal response to allege that Walthall treated Lepley in an unprofessional and demeaning way.
"My client shows up for work every day and does her job," Lowy wrote. "Her communications skills are not lacking. The problem this year is that she works for a verbally abusive homophobe who is predictably receiving low marks in community surveys."
Lepley, 61, is gay and in a committed relationship of 23 years. She accused Walthall of stating that he is a homophobe in front of other administrators who know she is gay, and also of making other derogatory remarks about her. Lowy charged that Walthall has a bias against gay people.
District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said the employee relations department is looking into the allegations of discrimination. Walthall declined to comment through Cobbe's office.
This discord in Sunlake's management comes at a time when the school already has come under close district scrutiny, having gotten one of the county's poorest results in the school climate surveys of parents, students and staff. Superintendent Kurt Browning recently changed one assistant principal at Sunlake, in part to strengthen leadership there.
Lepley joined Sunlake in 2010, the same year that Walthall took over as principal. She had been an assistant principal at Gulf High School since 2004; Walthall had been an assistant principal at Sunlake since moving from a similar post at Mitchell High in 2007.
Through 2011, Lepley had received one formal reprimand, for making derogatory comments about two Gulf High employees using a pseudonym on a Tampa Bay Times news blog. She called one staff member "the laziest piece of flesh on the face of the earth."
Lepley had otherwise received solid evaluations from the time she joined the district as an art teacher in 1987. Walthall, 60, also earned strong evaluations since becoming an ROTC instructor at River Ridge High School in 1995, following a 22-year career in the U.S. Air Force.
They began to have issues in the fall of 2012.
First, Lepley received a reprimand for failing to properly authorize 14 of the school's 16 Advanced Placement courses, meaning students could not get full credit for their AP courses, which count more toward a student's GPA than regular courses. They were able to earn college credit if they scored well enough on the tests, though.
Lepley said in a written response that she was not aware she had to renew the courses annually, as that had not been part of her job previously. She asked for an informal rather than a formal reprimand.
In December, Walthall again reprimanded Lepley for her actions in October relating to a student with special education needs who had an emotional breakdown at school. He accused Lepley of exacerbating the situation. Lowy described the events similarly, but suggested that Lepley was defusing a crisis and should be commended, not berated.
After the two incidents, Walthall, district executive director David Scanga and assistant superintendent Tina Tiede held a performance conference with Lepley to discuss her skills and create an "action plan" for improvement. In his April 2 summary letter, Walthall listed areas of concern, including Lepley making faces or noises to communicate disagreement in meetings, and her assigning work to school secretaries outside their normal duties rather than coordinating through the principal's secretary.
He also said parents and staff members had complained about Lepley speaking to them in a negative or disrespectful way.
"I heard Dr. Scanga express his concerns that as an experienced administrator, there is an expectation that your performance as an assistant principal should be at high levels of the leadership standards," Walthall wrote. "I am open to provide you the support you need."
Lowy shot back on April 17, answering to the specific complaints and more in a colorful letter in which he said Lepley "is not going to be reserved."
"She feels she's been mistreated and a lot of things kind of piled up for her," he explained. "It was necessary for her to respond."
He questioned the criticisms, calling them "incredibly picayune" and an "obviously unlawful pretext meant to further demean her, single her out due to her age, gender and marital status, and prepare to potentially fire her from her position at Sunlake High School."
Aside from making antigay comments, Walthall allegedly told two faculty members that "Dr. Lepley was probably a crack baby. That would explain a lot," Lowy's letter said. Lowy also referred to other "ugly comments" about Lepley that were not detailed in the letter.
Lepley is asking that the reprimands be removed from her file and that she be allowed to complete her career, about four more years, in Pasco County schools.
"What we're hoping is that sanity intervenes and that this teacher and principal's history is respected and she gets to keep her job and there is no future in this story," Lowy said, adding that if Walthall is disciplined, "perhaps that's overdue."
Cobbe said the district investigation could take some time because of its "he said-she said" nature. Contract reappointments are due in late May or early June.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.