TARPON SPRINGS — Parents and students rallied Wednesday in support of a widely adored administrator called the "soul of Tarpon High School" after hearing he would be forced to leave the school next month.
But Wayne McKnight, a Tarpon Springs High assistant principal and the school's athletic director for nearly a decade, said he has already resigned himself to moving on. He has applied for an administrative job at Osceola High School.
"I wish I could fight for this position. ... I don't have children, so I've always believed my family is Tarpon High," McKnight said Wednesday. "But I work for the Pinellas County School District. They can move me wherever they want."
McKnight was told last week that his annual contract with the school would not be renewed, making his last day June 25. He was not given a reason for his forced departure but was told he should interview at other schools.
Tarpon High principal Clint Herbic said through his assistant that he would not comment. He referred questions to the school district. A spokeswoman there said the nonrenewal came at Herbic's recommendation, with no reason given.
Herbic revealed some misgivings with McKnight's work in a letter he wrote in March as part of a "success plan" listing ways McKnight needed to improve, school district records show.
Herbic wrote that McKnight needed to "report all rumors ... to the principal immediately," "follow all school and district policies without fail" and "work to ensure (his) visibility has a purpose."
He also wrote, "You have been quick to assist others, but be careful that you do not neglect your own duties in doing so. ... Loyalty to the administration team and the principal must become a priority."
The lack of answers has fueled speculation that Herbic, a former teacher who became principal at Tarpon High in 2009, pushed for McKnight's dismissal due to a long-simmering personality clash.
Some of McKnight's supporters suggest Herbic, a former high school basketball coach, is still upset over coverage he received in the 1990s when McKnight worked as a sports correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times.
McKnight was disciplined twice for minor infractions last year, school district records show, including a letter of reprimand for naming a physical education assistant a head coach in a way that broke a county rule.
He also received a one-day unpaid suspension in September after officials said he gave excused absences to 18 students without evidence, allowing some of them to skip final exams.
Both incidents have long been resolved, McKnight said.
A teacher since the late '80s, McKnight, 51, was hired at Tarpon High in 2003 after leaving a similar job at East Lake High School. For years, students said, he has been an omnipresent figure in the halls and at games, rehearsals and field trips. This month, he was a chaperone when the school band went to Toronto.
"I have trouble fathoming how somebody at his level at a school like this can just be dismissed from a job," said Rob Hampton, father of two Tarpon alumni and one graduating senior. "He lives, eats and breathes Tarpon High."
Parents rallied at a shelter at Fred Howard Park Wednesday evening to plan their next moves, which may include speaking at a Pinellas County School Board meeting next month.
On Facebook, where nearly 2,500 people have joined a group in support of McKnight, students suggested printing flyers and designed a "Keep McKnight" T-shirt that they plan to wear en masse on Friday.
"The kids are not taking this well at all, and they plan on standing up for their family, which includes Wayne McKnight," wrote Hazel Utz, a parent of Tarpon students for eight years, in a letter to the school board. "You will see many parents joining them."
Added Alec Hochberg, a sophomore: "Tarpon High isn't Tarpon without Mr. McKnight. ... If Mr. McKnight leaves, the soul of Tarpon High will go with him."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected] Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.