Department of Juvenile Justice officials said they were "surprised" when Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys superintendent Mary Zahasky stepped down after a critical performance evaluation on Dec. 17.
"That's a personal decision that she made, not that we made for her," spokesman Frank Penela said at the time.
But records suggest no one should have been surprised.
Documents obtained by the St. Petersburg Times show the department picked a new superintendent a month and a half before Zahasky resigned.
In a Nov. 4 memo to the department's second in command, Zahasky's boss, Mary Mills, wrote:
"We have identified Mr. Michael Cantrell, current Regional Director for North Detention, as the new Superintendent for the Dozier School. . . . We feel Mr. Cantrell has the type of leadership skills needed to address the re-structuring plans for management of the Arthur G. Dozier School and Jackson Juvenile Offender Correction Center. This position is critical in meeting the needs to ensure the safety and security of the youth and staff in the program."
The memo refers to Zahasky as the "vacating superintendent."
Deputy Secretary Rod Love signed off on a 10 percent salary increase for Cantrell on Nov. 10. Thirty-seven days later, Zahasky met with her boss for a performance evaluation and was blamed for failing to control the reform school, which has been scandalized by a series of institutional failures. The evaluation criticized Zahasky for not being visible to the boys and staff members, not addressing safety and security lapses and not identifying issues "before they are known to outsiders."
Zahasky also was presented with suggestions to improve her performance. But she stepped down.
"Due to the Dept. feels I am unable to do this job and has lost faith in me, has left me recognizing I need to step down with Residential," she wrote on her evaluation.
Officials now say they don't know why the Nov. 4 memo was written to sound as if they had already chosen Cantrell as superintendent.
"I don't know why the language reads like that," said Penela. "There was no decision made until afterward."
Zahasky's departure, Penela said, "was a surprise to us. It was a surprise to everybody."
In a written response to questions, Darryl Olson, assistant secretary for residential services, said: "A decision was made to appoint Mike in the event that Mary failed to comply with her performance improvement plan. We had good reason to believe that she would not comply. We did not want to wait for that to happen before appointing a replacement. That is why we had Mike lined up."
The Nov. 4 memo also says the school failed its annual review.
"As you are aware the program has failed their Quality Assurance Review this year and has been under continuous media attention. We feel a new leadership team needs to be identified to move this program forward."
The Times made written requests for copies of that quality assurance report on Nov. 5, Nov. 18, Nov. 30, Dec. 3, Dec. 17 and Dec. 18. Each request was denied. The department released the report on Dec. 22, after Zahasky stepped down.
Penela said the report wasn't written until Dec. 22, and the copy it released then was still a draft.
"I got it to you as fast as I could," he said.
How did officials know on Nov. 4 that Dozier had failed the review if the review wasn't complete until Dec. 22?
"We were aware of the failed QA based on the scoring grid that is prepared immediately following the review," Olson wrote. "The final report is prepared at a later date. We did not need a final report to begin taking corrective action."
Cantrell, 42, who has 20 years of experience working with juveniles, has started at the state's oldest reform school. The school's seventh superintendent in nine years, he'll make $91,316 a year, 23 percent more than Zahasky's annual salary of $74,284.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.