LAND O'LAKES — About two dozen supporters of Lacoochee Elementary School principal Karen Marler traveled to Land O'Lakes on Thursday to make one more appeal for their school leader's quick return to campus.
"This afternoon would be best," organizer Esperanza Conn told assistant superintendent David Scanga and other administrators who met with the group for an hour.
Scanga made no such promise. He did, however, assure the parents and community leaders that he would present their views to superintendent Heather Fiorentino as she ponders the fate of Marler, whom she removed from Lacoochee last week amid complaints about Marler's leadership.
"It's information we will add to the information we have already gathered," Scanga said. "I would say we are very close" to a decision.
Scanga and other district administrators have spent the past week interviewing dozens of people involved with Lacoochee Elementary School, to determine whether the grievances aired against Marler are valid. The details of the concerns have not been made public.
Marler, the school's principal since 2004, was the subject of a similar climate study three years ago. She was not removed from the school, although she was required to change some of her management practices, district officials said.
While Marler's critics have remained tight-lipped publicly, her backers have made a high profile showing of their support.
They have picketed peacefully outside the school at dropoff and pickup time, collected hundreds of signatures on a petition and written letters to school district leaders. They upped the ante by calling in local newspaper and television reporters, who have shown up to document moms and kids waving signs and wearing shirts proclaiming their support for Marler.
That message came through again Thursday.
Civic activists including Margarita Romo of Farm Workers Self-Help spoke passionately of Marler's work, not only with the children of this impoverished community but also with the hard-fought efforts to improve the area's economy.
"She's an organizer, and she has built a safe place for everybody in this room to come together and meet and build," Romo said. "We cannot lose that. ... If you take her away, what is going to happen to what she has built?"
Speaking in Spanish, grandmother Ediltrudis Morales praised Marler for establishing programs that have helped immigrants like her learn English and get more involved in children's educations. She spoke of her own love for cooking Mexican food, and noted how frustrating it is when a tamale gets only half cooked.
The school system should likewise not leave Lacoochee Elementary half done, Morales said, by removing its strong leader.
"No one is indispensable," she said. "But when good things occur, we need to support them."
Speakers also targeted Marler's accusers, saying that some Lacoochee teachers don't do what they're supposed to and they bristle when Marler holds their feet to the fire. Supporters urged Scanga not to heed complainers to the detriment of the children and community members who count on the principal.
Scanga thanked the group for taking the time to come to the district headquarters to speak their mind. He said he planned to visit a community action team meeting later in the evening to collect more input for Fiorentino.
Marler's supporters walked away satisfied too. They said they valued being in a country that allows for such open exchanges, and they had positive vibes that something good will come of it.
"I think everything went so good," said Lucia Miramon, whose children attend the school. "We have a lot of hope. We really appreciate the time they took for us."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.