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Pasco district says Sunlake teacher running out of last chances

LAND O'LAKES — When Maryann Verdi returned to teaching after a year on unpaid suspension, Pasco schools employee relations director Kevin Shibley laid down the law.

Verdi was expected to be professional, complete all job tasks and maintain appropriate relationships with members of the school community.

"Your failure to follow through on any one of these conditions will result in an immediate recommendation for the termination of your employment," Shibley wrote in his Aug. 19 letter to Verdi, who had been on leave after a domestic battery arrest.

Less than two weeks later, Verdi already was on the ropes. And now she's fighting for her job, disputing the many accusations made against her since her arrival back at school.

"I'm on the defensive," Verdi said. "They want me to quit. I'm not a quitter. I'll go down swinging."

The district, which placed Verdi on unpaid leave earlier this month, released a stack of documents this week alleging a range of inappropriate behaviors.

During planning week, a former colleague from River Ridge High School accused Verdi of sending profanity-laced text messages over the summer that made her feel uncomfortable. Several new colleagues at Sunlake High, meanwhile, raised concerns about Verdi's punctuality, attentiveness in meetings, inappropriate cell phone use, tobacco use on campus and her boyfriend's presence on campus.

For example, assistant principal Ryan Brady reported that several teachers saw Verdi keep her classroom emergency door open to smoke outside on school grounds, which is not allowed. She denied it.

Brady also reported that Verdi was texting and taking calls during student registration, when she was supposed to be dealing with parents and students. Assistant principal Shawn Hohenthaner also raised concerns about Verdi's cell phone use during teacher planning sessions. Verdi said she tried to be discreet in her phone use, but was trying to coordinate doctor appointments.

Hohenthaner further noted the presence of Verdi's boyfriend, whose behavior she described as "erratic and almost 'tweaky.' "

A similar description of Verdi's boyfriend came from teacher Carla Nolan, who reported that the man took books from the school but later returned them at Nolan's insistence. "Ms. Dell even asked him if he was high because he did not seem to understand what she was saying and he appeared impaired," Nolan wrote.

Verdi said her boyfriend was sleep-deprived and worn out from helping her move homes and classrooms.

She was suspended before classes began. Verdi returned to school two weeks into the year.

Last chance

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino gave a final warning to Verdi in a Sept. 7 letter.

"As an employee who is being given a final chance to correct your performance and behavior, I expect you to return to work at Sunlake High School with a positive attitude and conduct yourself in a manner becoming of an educator," Fiorentino wrote. "I encourage you to attempt to make a fresh start at Sunlake. Failure to meet these expectations will result in an immediate recommendation for the termination of your employment."

Two days later, Verdi was escorted from campus, told to turn in her computer and her keys.

More than a dozen students submitted written statements about things she had said and done in her U.S. history and world history classes. Some examples from their complaints:

"She used foul language and told some inappropriate jokes that you would not expect a teacher to say."

"She ... talked about illegal substances in class. She was either talking about doing the drugs, or telling students how to hide them if they were ever searched."

"She ... talked about sexual activity, talked to her boyfriend in class... ."

"She wanted to close up the window so the teacher next door couldn't see in and, yes, she referred to her as a bitch."

"She told us she couldn't hand back our papers because she spilled beer on them and they reeked."

One student wrote that the comments and discussion didn't necessarily offend, but it was clear "she could get fired for this by the end of the second day. I mentioned to her it wasn't good, but the third day never came to find out if she'll change."

Teacher responds

Verdi, who has been a Pasco teacher since 1996, disputes the accusations.

She said she spoke of drugs and alcohol only to explain how she had turned her life around as a teenager, and only when asked why she had taught at-risk students for so long. She said she used profanity, but only in telling students what words are not acceptable in class.

"I probably could have been more professional," said Verdi, 40. "But I am who I am. ... Maybe I came in too real."

She denied calling co-workers by negative names. She denied saying that she spilled beer on papers.

Verdi said that students might have been intimidated by administration into making the statements, suggesting that some in the district are intent on getting rid of her.

"These allegations to them are so monumental," Verdi said. "It's gossip. A lot of it is hearsay. And it's not the truth."

If the district wants to hold her to the standard of being professional 24 hours a day, then it had better look in the mirror, she added: "A lot of people are doing improprieties."

Verdi intends to fight her pending dismissal, which could come before the School Board on Oct. 4. She's somewhat resigned, though, that the result won't be in her favor.

"Am I hurt that this career is going to go? Yeah. It's been part of my life for 15 years," she said. "I know what their goal is. At this point, what am I going to say that is going to change anybody's mind? ... It's in God's hands now."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Sunlake High School teacher Carla Nolan's last name was misspelled in the original version of this story.

Pasco district says Sunlake teacher running out of last chances 09/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 3:57pm]
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