BROOKSVILLE — During the recent graduation ceremony for Nature Coast Technical High School, senior class president Brandon Forman started off with a line: "Well, let's talk about our senior year."
Then he pulled out from behind the podium a stack of newspapers featuring Nature Coast in the bold headlines.
It got a big laugh, providing a bit of comic relief to ease wounds left by what outgoing principal Margaret "Tizzy'' Schoelles called one of her most difficult years as an administrator.
Schoelles said she found herself breaking bad news often, and balancing damage control with the day-to-day duties of running a 1,500-student school.
The litany of woes included a band director and a head football coach each accused of inappropriate relations with students; the football team forced to forfeit its final two games because of an on-field brawl; a controversy over out-of-county students at the magnet school; and several students involved in crimes and car accidents, including a collision that took the life of a beloved sheriff's captain.
"The faculty got to the point where we'd be having the morning staff meeting and they'd be holding their breath, like 'What's next?' " Schoelles recalled.
The school year ended with Schoelles, the only principal the school has had since opening in 2003, being reassigned along with assistant principal Joy Greene.
Students, parents and teachers spoke to the St. Petersburg Times in recent days about the extraordinary amount of misfortune at the school this past year.
They maintain that the Nature Coast "family" handled the year as well as any school could, in large part because of Schoelles' leadership. Many are concerned about her and Greene's transfers and worry that the bad news has overshadowed the school's accomplishments.
"I think the feeling here is, you're taking all the foundation blocks to build on," said Dianne Shrieves, an English teacher with more than 30 years of experience and a Nature Coast founding staffers.
"We're leaving this year with a lot of questions unanswered, and that makes us feel a little off balance."
A couple unfortunate events are a part of high school life each year, said Stephen Brock, professor of school psychology at California State University, Sacremento. "In a moderately sized high school you would expect to have challenges," Brock said. But, given the history of Nature Coast's last 13 months, he said, "It's pretty unusual, and I would imagine pretty devastating."
As for whether some the problems resulted from a lack of leadership, football player Lane Dodson said, "I don't think anyone in this district could have done anything different to change it.''
• • •
The yearbook staff at Nature Coast Technical High School had a problem.
It was early January, and the students had already put together pages for the 2008-09 edition that featured band director Timothy Brightbill and sent them on to the publisher.
Then news broke that Brightbill, then 42, had been arrested and confessed to engaging in sexual activity with a 17-year-old female student. He later resigned.
Yearbook staffers called the pages back and edited Brightbill out of the photos in which he had appeared.
"We erased him," recalled yearbook editor John Lain. "We just completely made him disappear. It was kind of difficult, but we got it done."
The Brightbill scandal was only one of the headlines from the school year.
Just days before 2008's graduation, a student was killed while riding his bike on Powell Road. Another committed suicide in November. Still another student was seriously injured in February when the SUV he was driving collided with another car, killing the driver, Hernando County Sheriff's Capt. Scott Bierwiler.
Then there was the football team's forfeiture of its season finale at Central High and barring from the postseason over a bench-clearing brawl during an away game Nov. 7. Head coach Jamie Joyner was alleged to have thrown a punch at a student.
Joyner later resigned while district and law enforcement officials investigated his relationship with an 18-year-old female student at Nature Coast.
Schoelles said she tried to keep students and staffers informed and to minimize the pain connected to the events, while keeping her own grief or disappointment in check.
"There's no manual, there's no blueprint," she said. "Everything you deal with is going to be different depending on who's involved. That's a tremendous emotional burden."
Teachers and students say Schoelles succeeded.
"She carried the weight of the world and chose to put on a strong face for her students," said Niki Pirola, treasurer for the Class of 2009.
Lois Simoneaux, an English composition teacher and media specialist who has been at the school since 2003, said Schoelles has a knack for leading in times of turmoil.
"We've been given the help we need, the tools we need to get through those circumstances so we can help the kids get through it," Simoneaux said.
Dawn Quirino, a Nature Coast parent and member of the school's Advisory Council, said she has heard complaints from parents and students that Schoelles' leadership style is heavy-handed.
"But you need to be strong in a high school," Quirino said. "She always has a reason behind whatever she does."
• • •
Schoelles said the actions of Joyner and Brightbill brought "profound sadness and professional disappointment."
There was at least one warning sign in the case of Brightbill. After his arrest, the Times reported that Schoelles had warned him in October 2007 to remove inappropriate photos from his MySpace page. In a letter, Schoelles said Brightbill could be fired for keeping those photos up or engaging in similar conduct again.
Schoelles and teachers are adamant that there were no rumors floating around about Brightbill or Joyner. "While I'm responsible for everything that happens here, they're not my fault,'' she said.
"I would be very concerned or disappointed in a superintendent assigning blame because you can't control that, any more than I could control Scott Avery's death," she said, referring to the student struck and killed on Powell Road.
Schoelles has admitted at least some fault for another school controversy this year: the presence of ineligible students despite district policy that bars out-of-county residents from being admitted.
Officials discovered 19 ineligible students at the school. Schoelles said she failed to check some students' information because she didn't realize that Spring Hill addresses extend south into Pasco County. The School Board voted to allow three students who will be seniors next year to return, but eight others who asked to stay will have to leave.
"I'm human," Schoelles said at the time. "I make mistakes."
But the incident fueled rumblings that the school goes after out of county students to help its athletic teams. In 2006, the Florida High School Athletic Association put Nature Coast on probation for three years and assessed fines for violations of the association's rules on recruiting. Schoelles adamantly denied those findings.
• • •
While Alexander announced the administration reassignments in March, Schoelles said she knew she would be leaving months before that.
In November, Schoelles recalled, Alexander called her in to discuss the reassignment. He didn't give her the pick of any school, but did ask where she would like to go.
Anywhere but a high school, Schoelles says she replied, because she didn't want to bump one of her colleagues from a current assignment. "I told him to pick where my talents would best serve the district," she said.
Greene said she was surprised and disappointed by the reassignments. "I have mixed emotions now," she said. "I really enjoy what I'm doing here. But I'm not opposed to change. It does provide growth."
Alexander tapped Sonya Jackson, currently the district's executive director for school services, to take over as principal. Jeff Yungmann, currently supervisor of curriculum for the district, will take Greene's assistant spot.
Jackson joined the district in 2004. She's served as principal and assistant principal at elementary schools in Putnam County. She has one year of high school experience, having served as dean of Palatka High in 1996.
Nature Coast's will be the first school-level administrator position of Yungmann's career.
Alexander wouldn't talk specifics when asked what prompted him to move Schoelles and Greene. But his evaluations of the administrators for this past school year might shed some light on the decision. The law allows school districts to keep evaluations confidential for two years.
Wendy Tellone, Alexander's predecessor, praised Schoelles' performance in evaluations up to 2007, calling her "a high performing principal" and "an exemplary role model."
"There are 71 administrators in our organization, and each and every one of them has strengths and areas they need to improve on," Alexander told the Times. "One of the things I've tried to do is match those strengths with the needs of a particular school at a given time."
When asked about feedback from teachers who say staffers at Nature Coast overwhelmingly support Schoelles, he responded, "I would say people are free to have their opinions."
• • •
Nature Coast is, by design, a different kind of high school.
The $41.5 million school on California Street was financed with a local sales tax after officials campaigned for a new vocational/technical school to better prepare students with practical job skills.
From engineering to theater, cosmetology to graphic arts, the school's curriculum was designed to give students a head start on their careers.
Teachers point with pride to the school's recent FCAT scores, which included gains in writing that placed Nature Coast first among of the county's four high schools in that category. The school also finished first or second among the high schools in math and science, and reading.
"The scores say the teachers and student focus on why we're here," said Shrieves, the English teacher. "We deal with things well. That has been modeled for us from the top down."
But the negative events seem to get the attention, said Lisa Brown, a reading coach and assistant girls soccer coach.
"We sort of feel cheated, because that's not what defines us," Brown said.
Alexander said he trusts Jackson's experience in instruction and athletics. His directive for her Nature Coast assignment, he said: "Build upon a good thing. Just keep getting better."
Still, teachers said they sense that Jackson is being brought in as a fixer.
There is one problem with that theory, said Lori Erickson, a theater teacher who has been at Nature Coast from the beginning. "I don't think we're broken," she said.
Teachers are ready to work for — and with — the new administrators for the betterment of the school, said Marguerite Kling, a social studies teacher who recently wrapped up her third year at the school.
"Even though Mrs. Schoelles is gone," Kling said, "we're still going to live by that adage: Is it good for kids?"
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.