LAND O'LAKES — Maryann Verdi had a troubled transition into high school.
"I was an at-risk kid," Verdi said. "I was stealing, skipping, everything you can think of."
Teachers at Gulf High convinced her to straighten up and fly right. Before long, the girl who had flunked ninth grade became her school's 1988 Turnaround Award recipient.
That's when she decided to become a teacher.
"I really have dedicated my life ... to kids that, frankly, nobody wanted to teach," said Verdi, 40, who has worked for the Pasco school district since 1996.
On Tuesday evening, she appeared before the Pasco School Board pleading to keep her job or, at the very least, her salary while district officials investigate allegations against her.
Sunlake High School leaders have accused Verdi of using foul language with students, calling co-workers nasty names and talking about alcohol, drugs and jail during class time. Verdi joined the Sunlake staff in August after serving an unpaid suspension from her March 2010 arrest on charges of domestic battery and battery on a law enforcement officer.
She taught at River Ridge High before the arrest, which stemmed from a fight with her husband. The charges were waived after she completed pretrial intervention.
"I fully believe in this process," Verdi told the School Board. "The unpaid leave is a concern to me. I have already been on unpaid leave in the past. I already lost my home, my car, just about everything I owned. I cannot afford not to be paid in this economy."
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino, who has told Verdi she intends to recommend her firing Oct. 4, told the board she did not take unpaid suspension lightly.
"I believe when you see the charging documents you would not want this person being paid sitting at home," Fiorentino said, noting that if the board disagrees, Verdi would get her pay reinstated plus the back pay.
In a Sept. 12 letter, which Verdi gave to the St. Petersburg Times, Fiorentino detailed complaints by students and teachers.
Verdi reportedly cursed in class, called some co-workers "bitches" and spent instructional time "talking about alcohol, drugs and (her) experiences in jail." She also allegedly told students about confidential disciplinary conversations she recently had with the school's administration, Fiorentino wrote.
District spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said Verdi received a "last chance letter" on Sept. 7, relating to other things that took place at Sunlake. Neither the district nor Verdi released this letter.
When confronted Friday by employee relations director Kevin Shibley, Fiorentino wrote, Verdi became "extremely argumentative," threatening lawsuits, using profanity and "calling him inappropriate and unprofessional names including 'f---ing nerd.' "
"It is my position that you have destroyed your ability to serve your school and the district as a result of your behavior," Fiorentino wrote.
Verdi saw things differently.
She said she came to Sunlake seeking a fresh start, but immediately was bombarded with nasty rumors. She said co-workers and students asked if it was true she had killed her husband, for example, or been a drug dealer.
Verdi said she answered truthfully — hence the accusations that she talked about drugs and jail — to set the record straight. As for the profanity, Verdi explained that she heard students using so much foul language that she wanted to clarify exactly what words were not permitted in her classroom.
"I got fed up," she said. "I said, 'You will not say f---. You will not use a--.'"
Verdi, who said she is receiving mental health treatment, criticized the Sunlake assistant principals who came to her room and ordered her to leave 30 minutes before the end of the school day Friday. She suggested that past colleagues from River Ridge High had poisoned the well before her arrival at Sunlake, where she ran into problems on the first day of teacher planning.
"I just want to do what I love, and that is teach," she said.
Verdi plans to contest her pending dismissal. She'll have to do so without a paycheck.
Board members discussed her request Tuesday evening not to cut her off. Some complained about lacking information to make a decision. But ultimately they backed Fiorentino's recommendation to suspend Verdi without pay.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.