LACOOCHEE — Their signs said it all.
"Honk to show support for Mrs. Marler our principal. We love you!"
"Return Ms. Marler."
"Apoyamos la principal Mrs. Marler!"
More than three dozen students, parents and community activists waved homemade placards outside Lacoochee Elementary School early Tuesday, calling for the quick return of principal Karen Marler. District officials abruptly removed her from the school a week ago with little explanation, saying only that there were "concerns" that her leadership had negatively affected the school's culture and climate.
Pretty much everyone who drove by to drop off their children honked long and loud. A majority of them signed a petition backing Marler, who has led Lacoochee Elementary since late 2004.
During her tenure, Marler has steered the school to mostly A's and B's in the state grading system, though last year it dipped to a C. The school is a bright spot in Pasco's poorest community, and Marler has been involved in the efforts of government and business leaders to get Lacoochee back on track.
She spent the Saturday before her removal picking up trash from the neighborhood park.
"We want her to come back," said Diana Hernandez, who waved a sign with her two children. "She's so nice. She's so involved in the school, and she's a great person. She's always trying to help people, and she's involved in every child's progress."
Hernandez was one of the participants in Lacoochee Elementary's Parent University, a program Marler helped create to show parents how to communicate with teachers, help their children read and become more active at the school.
"We loved that. It's very nice we can get involved in school activities," Hernandez said. "She helps us in every way. We feel so comfortable when we come to the school."
Fifth-grader Melissa Gallego said she, too, loves her principal.
"We're saving our principal so she won't go away and we won't miss her at all, so we can have all our fun stuff back," Melissa said before heading to class. "Right now she's at district. People at district are trying to get her fired."
John Mann, the district's director of leadership development, explained Tuesday that's not the case. Some school staffers raised concerns about Marler to district officials, who are now conducting focus groups and interviews to determine the veracity of the complaints, said Mann, who was overseeing the effort.
Marler, 59, has been temporarily reassigned to the district office, where she's working on class-size compliance and other projects. Centennial Elementary principal Cynthia Harper is serving as visiting principal.
"You want to make sure you're focusing on what's best for the school," Mann said.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino sent a similar message to activists who began sending her letters and e-mails of support for Marler late Monday, after organizing a campaign earlier in the day.
"The District has received several concerns from staff and families regarding the school leadership," Fiorentino wrote. "As a result, we have a team at the school interviewing all parties. Our goal is to determine whether or not the concerns have merit, and to develop a plan that will best support learning at Lacoochee Elementary School. We want to ensure that Lacoochee Elementary offers a positive, enriching environment through which all students will reach their highest potential."
The superintendent's office also reviewed Marler's leadership about three years ago upon receiving complaints from the United School Employees of Pasco. That climate study, during which Marler remained at the school, resulted in Marler changing some of her management practices, although district officials wouldn't provide specifics.
The result of the current review is expected by the end of the week.
In the meantime, the community intends to keep up its pickets, petitions and letters. Some representatives delivered about 350 signatures backing Marler to Fiorentino's office just after 1 p.m. Tuesday.
"I hope it's going to make an impact and touch the hearts of the people who are ultimately going to decide this," said organizer Esperanza Conn. She lives in the Pasco Elementary zone but chose to send her kids to Lacoochee because of Marler.
"If they think about the children, Ms. Marler will be returned," Conn said. "No ifs, ands or buts about it."
She turned to urge a passing car to honk for Marler.
The driver honked, then rolled down his window to shout out, "I love Ms. Marler!" as he drove away.
"We do, too!" Conn yelled back. "We do, too!"
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.