SPRING HILL — The letters portray a school on the verge of mutiny, or at least an exodus.
Staffers at Westside Elementary School in Spring Hill describe their principal, Dominick Ferello, as a surly, heavy-handed leader who is often late to school and uses intimidation to manage the staff when he is on the job.
Ferello's leadership is undermining the A school's high-performing status, teachers say in the dozen and a half letters delivered to the interim superintendent's office in recent weeks and released by the district Monday after a public records request by the St. Petersburg Times.
"Mr. Ferello is a bully," one faculty member wrote. " 'You better do this' and 'You know I know what's going on' and 'Don't forget I'm watching' are things I am tired of hearing."
The teachers union is poised to put the issue of Ferello's leadership to a confidence vote by Westside's staff in the coming weeks, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. The results of that vote will be submitted to new superintendent Bryan Blavatt, who starts Thursday.
"We would not do it if we didn't think there was a need to," Vitalo said.
Ferello, 55, who is in his first year at the school of about 800 students and nearly 70 instructional staffers, tries to pit teachers against one another and sometimes yells at them in front of other people, according to the letters.
Teachers complain that Ferello is more concerned about the school's cosmetic appearance than the quality of the education. They say he often comes in late but stays late to work on his doctorate. They say he requires them to have the same lesson plans regardless of grade level and threatens to move teachers who fall behind to a different position.
"I feel like the creativity has been completely removed from my teaching," wrote Amy Roberts, a kindergarten teacher and longtime Westside staffer.
"I feel insulted and feel like I may be punished based on my students' test scores," wrote Jennifer Bradley, a teacher in her fifth year at the school.
Julie Dibble, a Title I teacher who also has a daughter in kindergarten at the school, said she witnesses the effects as a parent and teacher. Of her daughter's teacher, Dibble wrote: "I see the stress she is put under every day. I worry that this stress will reflect onto my daughter's happiness. I worry that will happen to all the students here."
Ferello, in a written response to interim superintendent Sonya Jackson, said he was taken by surprise by the letters. "I didn't have any indication that concerns existed," he wrote.
He acknowledged that he "occasionally" shows up to school 30 to 40 minutes after the start time. The reason: severe asthma, he said, that requires a breathing treatment before he leaves home for work. He included a letter from his doctor describing the condition.
He noted that many faculty members have never worked under a principal other than Charles Johnson, who retired after more than two decades at the school.
"Change is always difficult. This is a hard situation for anyone to follow and be accepted," he wrote. Neither Ferello nor Jackson returned calls seeking comment Monday.
Heather Martin, executive director for business services, said the letters will be waiting for Blavatt, who will make a decision on Ferello's reappointment and the rest of the district's administrators by the end of May.
Ferello came to Hernando in February 2008, tapped by then-superintendent Wayne Alexander to lead the newly opened Explorer K-8 School in Spring Hill. He had nearly a decade of experience as a school administrator in South Florida.
Explorer had a rocky first year when more students than expected showed up and pushed enrollment to nearly 2,000. Ferello was the only experienced administrator and none of them had ever run a school with that size and capacity. He was out for several weeks that fall due to illness.
Alexander moved Ferello after one year and was vague about why he made the decision. Alexander's evaluation of Ferello's first year is not yet public record. Explorer teachers had complained, though, about Ferello's brusque management style.
"The issues and concerns have not changed, only the location," Vitalo said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.