Sunday, February 25, 2018
Education

Supporters come to ousted Connerton Elementary principal's defense

LAND O'LAKES — For months, James Kyle and other parents of children attending Connerton Elementary School didn't speak up as they watched some in the community bash principal Anna Falcone.

They figured their kids could learn the lesson that not everyone always gets along, and then the disagreements would blow over.

"We should have been more vocal," Kyle said.

Now with Falcone facing termination over accusations of insubordination, her supporters are speaking up. Some have begun circulating a petition to retain Falcone as Connerton principal; some are writing letters to district officials praising Falcone's leadership and deploring her treatment.

"Mrs. Falcone has always expected excellence of herself and of her staff members. She strives for it in her personal life as well as in her profession. She would never expect someone to do what she herself would not be willing to do," Connerton data entry operator Toni Moles wrote in a letter to the Tampa Bay Times and to the superintendent's office. "Education is her passion and it shows."

Superintendent Kurt Browning is scheduled to meet with Falcone on Thursday to hear her appeal of his recommendation that she be fired. He said he didn't expect her to resign, noting that she's hired a lawyer.

He also didn't want to say anything more about the situation, suggesting that his charging letter explains his position clearly.

In that letter, Browning calls Falcone insubordinate for repeated efforts to obtain the names of respondents to a confidential school climate survey, even after being told not to pursue the information.

"I also find that these actions will further erode the respect and confidence that your colleagues, students, parents and other members of the Connerton school community have in your ability to serve your school and the district at large," Browning wrote.

Browning removed Falcone from her post last month. He plans to ask the School Board to formally suspend her without pay on Tuesday, and then to end her employment on May 7.

Neither Falcone nor attorney James Schifino returned calls or emails seeking comment.

Kyle, who has a fifth grader at Connerton, said he was appalled by Browning's move to oust Falcone so soon before the annual FCAT testing. The school has become a somber, stressed place since, he said. He said Browning's action was ill-timed and too harsh for a "completely professional" principal who had created an A-rated school.

"I could see them all having a discussion behind the scenes that nobody knew about," Kyle said, suggesting he would not fire a principal for the actions of which Falcone is accused. "But coming out in public and doing all that is really ridiculous."

Kyle joined a mix of co-workers, friends and parents in standing up for Falcone, who hasn't been in the school since being relieved of duty right before spring break. She is negotiating for time to access her work computer so she can retrieve some of her files.

"I feel strongly that Mrs. Falcone is not just a great teacher and administrator, but a wonderful mentor and an individual with a strong passion for education. She personally inspired and mentored me to go from a secretary to work in the classroom," wrote Paola Sanchez, formerly Falcone's secretary. "Seeing her vision, commitment, and work ethic made me want to make an impact on children."

Jane Heisey, who sits on Connerton's advisory committee, wrote School Board member Joanne Hurley a letter not so much supporting Falcone, but deploring the handling of her situation.

"So far, there hasn't been one statement in Ms. Falcone's defense or to even clarify what she allegedly did. It is so completely one-sided that it makes me feel that Ms. Falcone has been treated unfairly," Heisey wrote. "She is being treated like someone who was caught doing something inappropriate or harmful with a child, not as someone who allegedly, might have made an error in judgment. To remove her so hastily on the last day before Spring Break, with just 8 weeks of school left makes little sense to most parents."

Hurley responded that she would make it a priority to ensure that Connerton is treated properly amid the changes.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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