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Fired school official deserves better

Tom Maher got fired.

It's not a fate I ever would have predicted for the resilient, personable, 48-year-old Hernando County resident who now works in Citrus County.

It's been eight years since I first met Maher. In 1990, he was an assistant superintendent in the Hernando County School District working for Dan McIntyre, a superintendent who was one of the most arrogant, dictatorial and ego-driven public servants I have had the misfortune to encounter in Florida.

My first impression of Maher was that he was pleasant and professional. I wondered how Maher could be comfortable backing up a person who used intimidation and pretense to build his power base.

What I soon learned was that Maher, a career educator, had another trait that uniquely qualified him to be the No. 2 in any organization: loyalty. When McIntyre made a mess of things, whether it was publicly insulting those who dared to disagree with him or force-feeding his staff an unpopular strategy, Maher was the one who often assumed the thankless job of smoothing things over. He was what those in political and bureaucratic circles call a fixer.

Hernando County's voters eventually rebelled against McIntyre's autocratic machinations and actually changed their system of government to get rid of him, voting to appoint, rather than elect, a superintendent. Maher, as elastic as ever, survived the upheaval and worked for the new appointed superintendent, Harold Winkler, for a while before accepting a job as Jimmy Hughes' assistant superintendent in Citrus County in 1995.

In the three years he has worked in Citrus County, Maher has not changed his modus operandi. He has been the quintessential second-in-command, alternately living in the shadows of Hughes and current Superintendent Pete Kelly and being the point man on numerous projects that specifically called for his skills as a team builder or emissary.

So given Maher's background and the fact that Kelly had shown no public dissatisfaction with his right-hand man, it is stunning that he was pulled aside in a parking lot one night last week and told by Kelly that he would be out of a job on June 30.

Why it happened is not clear. Kelly isn't talking about it, at least not to the press. Maher says it has something to do with a meeting that took place Tuesday, in which administrators were encouraged to speak freely about Kelly's plan for restructuring his management team. Citrus School Board members Patience Nave and Mark Stone have speculated that there might have been some bad blood between Kelly and Maher prior to Tuesday's meeting.

Maher denies that. He claims his only mistake may have been to disagree with the superintendent and to offer an alternative administrative restructuring plan, which, ironically, the School Board approved later that day.

Unless Kelly is willing to explain his actions, the public may never be privy to why he decided to fire Maher. In fact, because of the power given him as an elected superintendent, Kelly has no obligation to explain his actions to the School Board or even the people who elected him to office.

But he should.

Maher has been fiercely loyal to every boss I've seen him work for during the past eight years. To be honest, sometimes that loyalty has caused me to doubt his candor when confronted with difficult circumstances. On numerous occasions I have criticized his actions and explanations, holding them up for public scrutiny that was as unwelcome to him as it was necessary for me. But every time it has been clear that Maher was merely guarding the flank of his boss, carrying out marching orders as all good foot soldiers do.

Maher might have made some mistakes. But based on the information available now, his biggest mistake would appear to be that he ventured outside the comfort zone of conformity with Kelly, whose domineering management style increasingly seems to resemble that of Maher's first boss in Florida.