By most accounts, school district administrators left a meeting with Superintendent Pete Kelly on Tuesday afternoon feeling relieved and pleased.
They were relieved that Kelly was reconsidering a controversial plan that shuffled district jobs and might have left some of them without one, and pleased to work in a district where such a frank, open discussion could occur.
It was the frankness and openness of that meeting, Tom Maher believes now, that cost him his job.
Kelly, the school district head who fired second-in-charge Maher on Wednesday night, could not be reached for comment Friday. Top district administrators who attended Tuesday's meeting would not comment on Maher's dismissal, which has surprised many district employees.
Maher's dismissal has left School Board members and district employees questioning whether Maher was fired for disagreeing with Kelly or whether the working relationship between Maher and Kelly deteriorated long before Kelly proposed his controversial plan.
School Board member Mark Stone said Maher's disagreements with Kelly over the reorganizational plan might have been the "final straw" that severed ties between the superintendent and assistant superintendent.
"I think there's been some philosophical disagreements for a while," Stone said.
School Board member Patience Nave agreed with Stone, saying that Maher and Kelly often split on district policies. Those disagreements began well before Tuesday afternoon's administrators' meeting, she said.
"That makes it sound as if this was simply a capricious act on Mr. Kelly's part, and I don't think that's true at all," Nave said. "I think many things led up to this."
Neither Stone nor Nave would specify what issues Maher and Kelly have sparred about in the past.
"Let me just say that more than once, I have been told that attempts were being made to undermine Mr. Kelly's authority," Nave said.
Maher, on the other hand, said he and Kelly had a good professional relationship.
"I feel like I have always positively promoted the goals and objectives of the superintendent, always felt that I had an opportunity to share my point of view," Maher said Friday. "I believe that any recommendations or suggestions I've had to the superintendent were based on many years of experience."
Maher believes he fell into disfavor with Kelly because he opposed Kelly's reorganizational plan. The plan would have added a layer of administrators and might have jeopardized district jobs.
On Tuesday afternoon, administrators met to discuss Kelly's reorganizational plan, which the School Board would vote on Wednesday evening.
"After the many concerns that have been raised, I feel we need to rework this issue to insure that the best possible decisions are made for our students, staff and the school district as a whole," Kelly wrote in an April 20 memo to district administrators.
Maher said he planned to listen to the discussion Tuesday, but when other administrators asked his opinion, he offered it. Maher said he "spoke from the heart" about his problems with the plan and felt free to do so because of the meeting's open nature.
Maher said Kelly told him he made the decision to dismiss him that night. He delivered the news to Maher on Wednesday night in the district office parking lot, following a special board meeting where the board approved a revised reorganizational plan.
School Board member Sheila Whitelaw said she believed Kelly and Maher worked together well and had been impressed by Maher's professionalism.
"I was shocked, as most of the district was, to learn that someone with Mr. Maher's position and qualifications would be asked not to return," Whitelaw said.
She said she was concerned about how Kelly made his decision, particularly because Kelly recommended Maher for reappointment just two months ago.
"That leaves us nothing but to think that what has happened has happened suddenly," Whitelaw said.
Maher, 48, came to the assistant superintendent's post in July 1995, a little more than a year before Kelly was elected superintendent. Maher was hired from the Hernando County school district, where he was assistant superintendent for facilities and operations.
Over the years, Maher had served in a number of positions in schools, from health teacher to coach to school principal. He moved to Hernando County, where he still lives, in 1989.
Maher earned his bachelor's degree in health and physical education from Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio in 1971. He received a master's degree in educational administration from Miami of Ohio University in 1974, then an educational specialist's degree from Cleveland State University in 1979.
Maher said Kelly never formally evaluated his performance.
"I was very, very disappointed in the manner in which a high-caliber, high-performance employee was treated," Maher said.
_ Information from Times files was used in this report.