LACOOCHEE — Karen Marler's downfall as Lacoochee Elementary School principal all started with a recommendation that the district employee relations office check out "tension" between the school's instructional coaches and its psychologist.
What supervisor Elizabeth Kuhn discovered during her Sept. 17 visit was the appearance of a staff divided and a principal unwilling or unable to mend the rift. That's a potentially big problem for a school like Lacoochee, which serves as a community focal point and whose principal as a result holds a key community leadership role.
Three days later, Marler was gone and a team of district administrators was assigned to determine the depth of the school's woes.
Notes from interviews conducted over two weeks revealed two distinct camps at the school, one centering on instructional "coaches" Kathy Houston, Tami Stewart and Jay Szwast, and the other led by psychologist Mary Thomas-Oliver.
"When teachers are involved in a meeting involving the coaches and Mary Thomas-Oliver, the thought is, 'Let's bring popcorn to this movie,'" one teacher told Kuhn.
Thomas-Oliver referred to the coaches in letters to her supervisor as "Karen's generals" and belittled Marler for her lack of leadership skills. Stewart and Houston accused Thomas-Oliver of bullying and rude behavior and wrote in letters to district administrators that they would not work with the school psychologist any longer.
Interviews with Lacoochee's staff members revealed that many people started taking sides as the tensions increased. And, one teacher observed, none of the strong personalities wanted to back down.
Also, several employees accused Marler of dishonesty, intimidation, backstabbing, and "lunatic things." All the while, a group of parents and other employees praised Marler for her love of children and learning, suggesting that those who didn't like her style should learn to respect authority.
In the middle stood several people, who one teacher said "don't say anything and just pray that the situation will go away and that there will be change."
"Our school will not recover for a year, just like a church split," one employee told investigators.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said that when she asked Marler how she might fix things, Marler answered that she was "at wit's end" about what to do.
That's when Fiorentino decided to permanently relieve Marler of her leadership position and put her in a job helping migrant students and their families — something Marler had won praise for doing with Lacoochee's heavily migrant population. No other personnel changes have come.
Fiorentino picked Shirley Ray, an assistant principal at Seven Oaks Elementary School, to take over the reins at Lacoochee. She didn't even consider anyone else, saying that Ray has the right skills to put the school back on track alongside new assistant principal Sherri Dunham.
Dunham, a former Lacoochee teacher, helped write the district's antibullying policy, among other things.
"If these allegations of hostile work environment are the reasons they removed Karen Marler, I would think Sherri Dunham is a very good person to work in that school," United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb said. "I think she can be a peacekeeper."
Ray, who grew up in nearby Trilby and still has family there, visited with parents and community members Wednesday afternoon to assure them that she will continue the good things about the school while taking it to higher levels of achievement.
She knew nothing of the specifics that led to Marler's removal and said she wanted to keep it that way.
"I want a fresh start, and I think everybody there will too. That's how I'm going in," Ray said. "My goal is to make a school that is student centered. With that we'll do great. ... I am very excited for the opportunity."
Ray is expected to begin working at Lacoochee on Monday, after completing responsibilities at Seven Oaks.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.