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Curb rumors by hiring a new WTI team now

Here we sit, waiting for the other shoes to start dropping. The whisper campaign against School Superintendent Pete Kelly should gain full throat any day now.

As the smoke clears from Kelly's recent bombshell dismissal of Steve Kinard as director of the Withlacoochee Technical Institute, the expectations are that whatever it is that Kinard has held over Kelly's head to give himself cover for years is about to be revealed.

It must be something juicy, the theory goes, because it has allowed Kinard to glide through crises that would have doomed other school principals.

Citrus Times investigative reports in 1997 and 1998 revealed financial problems and questionable practices at the school, which appeared to have little oversight from the district. The stories embarrassed the administration and the School Board, and that usually is enough to get the transgressing school principal to begin updating his or her resume.

But we're not talking about just any school leader. When Kinard appears before the School Board to defend himself, he's never alone. An entourage of WTI faculty, staff and students follows, joined by several important members of the business community. They assume the power stance _ arms crossed across their chests, eyes fixed on the board members. The message is clear.

Kelly suspended Kinard for 20 days and ordered him to write a plan of corrective action. Yet, he allowed Kinard to set the days he would be away from work (sounds more like a vacation than a punishment). And only a very lenient boss would say that Kinard lived up to the spirit, if not the letter, of his written plan.

That posture has continued into this latest discussion on WTI's future, with Kinard openly opposing his boss almost to the point of insubordination. Something has allowed Kinard to believe he could take these stands without fear of reprisal from Kelly. This time, however, he went too far.

Either Kelly has grown weary of these battles, or he has decided that he'd rather face whatever his political enemies are cooking up than continue to see his authority challenged and eroded by a former boss who seems not to understand who is in charge now.

It all makes for steamy political intrigue, all the more interesting as the fall elections approach. Kelly's foes no doubt smell the blood in the water and are sharpening their incisors.

Something else is going to happen in the fall, however. Hundreds of teenagers will return to classes at WTI. Dozens more adults will head to the facility after work to take night classes. A strong, dedicated faculty will gather once again to work with these students.

Lost in all of the politics and whispers is a question that should be paramount for Kelly and the School Board: Who will lead the school when WTI's fall semester begins?

If the superintendent believes that Kinard and his team are no longer the best fit for the school, fine. But his replacement must be named soon. No school, but especially one as unique as WTI, can be allowed to drift through the very short summer when staff is preparing for next year's challenges.

The new directors must be closely aligned with Kelly's vision for the school, or else we risk a repeat of the tug-of-war that has waged for several years across Montgomery Avenue between the administration building and WTI.

That cannot be allowed to continue, as it serves no one, especially the taxpayers and the fee-paying adult students.

The new team must face issues such as whether WTI is living up to its potential as a training ground for the next generation of the local work force. And can it overcome what School Board Chairwoman Sam Himmel described as its "image problem," stemming from a dated and unfair reputation as a "dumping ground" for the district's under-achieving students?

These issues are real and vital to the success of a school that should be a jewel for the district and not a battlefield where the director, his faculty and even his students write letters to the School Board and picket on Main Street.

The students, staff and public deserve strong, competent direction from an inspired and talented leadership team. What we don't need are more whispers, rumors and political hand grenades.