Controversial pick for next principal of St. Petersburg High put on hold

Published May 24, 2017

Robert J. Gagnon was all set to be the new principal at St. Petersburg High, a plum position in the Pinellas County school district. His name was on a list of top administrative candidates to be approved at a special School Board meeting Tuesday. The job starts July 1.

On Monday, however, superintendent Mike Grego pulled his recommendation of Gagnon, saying in an email to board members that the action came "in light of new information shared with me" regarding Gagnon's experience in Lake County.

The announcement came shortly after the Tampa Bay Times began asking the district about Gagnon's background, which is outlined in detail in news reports from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

The newspaper reported in 2013 on Gagnon's role as principal at the Lake County Boys Ranch, a school for troubled boys that closed in 2000 after it was indicted on charges of Medicaid fraud and grand theft of $3 million. According to the Herald-Tribune, Gagnon and other school administrators were not charged because the state concluded that no one profited personally.

In his email to the Pinellas board, Grego made no reference to Gagnon's tumultuous tenure as an administrator in Manatee County, where he rose through the ranks to interim superintendent and was charged with felony and misdemeanor counts of failing to report child abuse at the hands of a coach accused of groping students and later convicted of misdemeanor battery. Gagnon was acquitted of the charges, the Bradenton Herald reported, and he sued the Manatee County School Board, saying it "sought and worked to destroy a man's name, character, future, and well-being." Gagnon won a $400,000 settlement from the district.

Through district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf, Grego said he "has nothing further to add at this time." Gagnon, 49, began working as an assistant principal at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg last year.

The information on his past is readily available from a Google search. Asked if Internet searches were part of the district's vetting process for new employees, Wolf said the process includes background and reference checks.

Grego wrote in his email that he planned to review the matter "to gain a full understanding before proceeding with a personnel recommendation for this position." He said he planned to present a recommendation for approval at a June 6 board meeting. It was unclear if Gagnon is still being considered for the St. Petersburg High position or if this will affect his current employment at Northeast High.

Gagnon did not respond Monday to requests for comment.

Northeast High principal Kevin Hendrick, who was an assistant principal at Palmetto High while Gagnon was there in 2006, described him as a bright educator who works well with teachers and effectively motivates kids.

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"His work with kids is second to none," Hendrick said. He added that Gagnon led an initiative with English language arts teachers since coming to Northeast two years ago.

Hendrick said he's read what was reported about Gagnon's experience 20 years ago in Lake County, and defended Gagnon in his dealings with Manatee County schools.

"I think what's important about that is, in the end, the Manatee County School Board awarded him with damages," Hendrick said. "If you look at the totality of things, I think he was wrongfully accused."

Hendrick would not comment on Grego's decision to pull Gagnon's appointment from the School Board agenda.

"St. Pete (High) is getting a wonderful educator and principal, and you just need to talk to the teachers he's worked with here, and the students he's worked with here," Hendrick said. "It speaks to his level of dedication and effort."

The principal position at St. Petersburg High opened after the school's long-time leader, Al Bennett, was promoted to director of athletics, pre-K-12 physical education, health education programs and school wellness, following the retirement of Nickolas R. Grasso. Gagnon was one of 47 people who applied for the position.

In addition to approving a new plan to improve education for black students, appointments still on Tuesday's agenda include:

- Mary M. Athanson will be promoted from assistant principal of Osceola Middle to principal of Palm Harbor Middle.

- Heidi E. D'Ambrosio, assistant principal of Calvin Hunsinger School, will take over as principal of Sanders Exceptional. Sanders' current principal, Jacquelene Douglas,will serve as the next principal of Extended Transition

- Martha B. Giancola, an apprenticeships and work-based learning specialist, will become principal of Career Academies of Seminole.

- Andrew W. Oyer, a ninth through 12th grade science specialist, will serve as assistant principal for the Center of Advanced Technologies at Lakewood High.

- Michael J. Hernandez, principal of Fitzgerald Middle, will transfer as principal of Northeast High. Hernandez follows the appointment of current Northeast principal Kevin Hendrick as the associate superintendent of teaching and learning.

- Ursula W. Parris, assistant principal of Seminole High, will serve as principal of Meadowlawn Middle. Meadowlawn's current principal, Claudius Effiom was tapped as the new assistant administrator at Pinellas Technical College in Clearwater.

- Deborah L. Thornton, an exceptional student education specialist, will serve as principal of Paul B. Stephens ESE Center.

- Michael J. Vasallo, an assistant principal at Gibbs High, will serve as principal of Dunedin Highland Middle.

If approved, all appointments will be effective July 1.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been edited to correct the year Robert Gagnon began working at Northeast High. A previous version stated the wrong year.