Rules are made to be followed, and Gorrie Elementary School principal Susan Foster teaches that every day. But if she could, she'd bend the state regulations leading to her mandatory retirement next month.
"It doesn't seem possible,'' said Foster, 61, tearfully counting the 27 years she has spent at the historic neighborhood school.
"I'm already dreading when school starts in August.''
Foster's relationship with Gorrie goes back even further, to 1968, when she interned there while attending the University of Tampa.
"We still had wooden floors and coat closets and a piano in the front foyer," she recalled. The school named for John B. Gorrie, the inventor of refrigeration, wasn't even air conditioned when she was a student-teacher.
Foster, who has been with Hillsborough County schools for 38 years, landed back at Gorrie in August 1981 after stints teaching at three other Tampa elementaries. Then-Gorrie principal David Binnie (whose grandchild now attends Gorrie) hired Foster to teach first grade but soon encouraged her to pursue a master's degree and become an administrator.
By 1989, she was the assistant principal, then promoted to principal in January 1995. During those years, Gorrie earned an A ranking from the state all but one year. PTA membership climbed to 100 percent and four faculty members became finalists for Teacher of the Year. This year, volunteers will log more than 15,000 hours.
"Just not a problem,'' said Foster, who knows most of the 570 children by name. "Maybe 30 students were sent to the office this year. You do the math."
Foster will tell you why in one word: family.
"We're truly a family. It's like taking care of your own children," she said. "They know we love them, and we expect their best."
It's a fairly affluent family, one that often provokes comparisons to a private school. Foster appreciates the Who's Who of South Tampa alumni roster.
"There isn't anything you ask that people wouldn't do here," Foster said.
How many principals can build a $2-million multipurpose building entirely through donations from the community? When the city's Architectural Review Commission forbade a covered playground in Hyde Park, parents raised the money for the 9,684-square-foot Coliseum partly through galas, gift wrap sales and other fundraisers.
Still, Foster insists, "people see Gorrie as a wealthy school, but it really is a microcosm of all socioeconomic levels."
Pushed to single out her proudest moments, the reluctant retiree points to Gorrie's being named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in 1998-99.
And getting windows back in the building.
"When Gorrie was renovated and air conditioning installed in 1977, they were cemented up,'' Foster said. "Parents fought for grant money, and in 2002, we put the windows back. It's made a world of difference."
First-grade teacher Lori Weiss knows Foster well, having taught at Gorrie for most of her almost four-decade career.
"Let's do it, and let's do it right; that's always her attitude,'' Weiss said. "Susan follows a pretty straight line, firm but positive. And she makes delicious French toast for our staff meetings."
Gorrie parent Linda Misner said Foster doesn't like surprises. "She always wants to be in the know ... so problems never get to crisis mode.''
Five years ago, Foster signed up for the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program and "retired" while continuing to work until a preset termination date, June 30. Her retirement benefits earned interest in a trust fund during that time.
As that date approaches, Foster wishes she could rewrite the rules so she could continue working on her to-do list.
"I wanted every child to have a laptop," she said.
She would also like to move playground equipment from the western side of the school to DeLeon Street and add a gate and walkway that would emulate the original 1903 structure.
Her advice to her successor, Marjorie Sandler:
"You don't run the school; you monitor it. Value the input and talent. Take all the ideas — because they're usually a lot better than yours — and integrate them."
Amy Scherzer, former Gorrie parent, can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3332.