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River Ridge High principal faces district investigation over old affair

LAND O'LAKES — Maryann Verdi sees a double standard in the way the Pasco school district disciplines employees.

And she's naming names.

Verdi, a reading teacher accused of inappropriate language and behavior with students, has asked pointedly why she faces dismissal while River Ridge High principal Maria Swanson kept her job after an affair with a subordinate employee when she was assistant principal at Wiregrass Ranch High School.

"(Superintendent) Heather Fiorentino doesn't fire her," said Verdi, who added that she once considered Swanson a friend. Verdi, 40, unsuccessfully appealed to the School Board on Tuesday to keep paying her salary while she is suspended.

District spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said upon hearing the allegation about Swanson, Fiorentino ordered an investigation. The key question is whether the relationship occurred during work hours or on district grounds.

Swanson, 46, already self-reported in May 2009 that she had a relationship with a teacher she supervised, Romagnoli said. That admission came about the same time Swanson's husband, Howard, was arrested on a charge of aggravated domestic violence against her. According to a Sheriff's Office report, he told a deputy he tried to strangle her after learning she had been cheating on him "with a few co-workers."

The charges were dropped a month later. The couple remains together.

Jim Davis, assistant superintendent at the time, gave Swanson a verbal reprimand and considered the case closed.

"The superintendent was not aware of it when the decision was made to transfer her to principal of River Ridge" in March 2009, Romagnoli said. "We're going to treat her as we would any other employee."

Since Swanson has been in charge of River Ridge, the school's academic scores have improved.

The School Board adopted a policy in 2010 that forbids supervisors from dating their subordinates. That rule was strengthened because of Fiorentino's concern that the district had over time seen too many bosses in relationships with employees, with many ending up married, Romagnoli said.

It did not exist at the time of Swanson's verbal reprimand.

Swanson and Ray Bonti, her principal at Wiregrass Ranch, were instructed by district officials not to return calls seeking comment. Davis said he did not want to talk about others' personal matters.

Verdi suggested it's not fair that she stands to lose her job based on allegations against her, while Swanson never faced such a threat. She alleged that Swanson and others who "I thought were my friends" from River Ridge, where she once worked, spread rumors about her that have dogged her upon her arrival at Sunlake High this fall.

Romagnoli contended that the accusations against Verdi, made by several students and staff members, do not compare to anything Swanson is known to have done. Still, she said, if the investigation turns up new evidence of impropriety, "there will be serious consequences."

The investigation is expected to take several days.

Whatever the result, Romagnoli added, it will not affect the outcome of Verdi's appeal to keep her job. "These are two separate matters," she said.

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

River Ridge High principal faces district investigation over old affair 09/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 16, 2011 10:52am]
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