Robert J. Gagnon was the shoo-in pick to be the next principal of St. Petersburg High last year, at least until "new information" surfaced about his early career that led Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego to reverse course.
Now, 15 months after losing out on that well-regarded post, Gagnon has landed a promotion, becoming assistant director of school leadership, a job that has him working to support the district's low-performing schools and boost student achievement.
"Mr. Gagnon was thoroughly vetted and based on his performance with Pinellas County Schools during the past two years, I support his appointment," Grego said in a statement. The School Board unanimously approved the move on July 31.
Spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said the district combed through 46 applications to screen and interview qualified candidates — the same process all administrative candidates undergo. "Mr. Gagnon was selected because after reviewing his application and conducting the district's standard interview process, he was determined to be the best candidate," she said.
He now makes $98,250, a bump up from his most recent position making $89,605 as an administrator on special assignment at Azalea Middle School.
Gagnon joined the district in 2016. In May 2017, when he was an assistant principal at Northeast High, Grego tapped him for the St. Petersburg High role. The recommendation just needed to be approved at an upcoming School Board meeting.
But the day before the meeting, shortly after receiving questions from the Tampa Bay Times about Gagnon's background, Grego changed course. In an email to School Board members, he cited "new information shared with me" about Gagnon's experience in Lake County nearly 20 years ago.
Back then, in the late 1990s, Gagnon was principal at the Lake County Boys Ranch, a school for troubled boys that was later indicted for Medicaid fraud and grand theft of $3 million, according to reports in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The school closed. Gagnon and other officials were not charged, the newspaper said, because the state deemed that no one profited personally.
Then, in Manatee County, as interim superintendent, Gagnon was charged with failing to report child abuse at the hands of a coach. He was acquitted, according to the Bradenton Herald, and sued the district for defaming him, landing a $400,000 settlement.
While in Manatee, Gagnon was a well-known and sometimes controversial figure, serving for a time as principal of Manatee High, where he instituted a no-nonsense disciplinary style and quickly led the school to improve its state grade from a D to an A.
In his new Pinellas job, he will focus on the district's "Transformation Zone," a group of 11 struggling schools in St. Petersburg, Largo and Clearwater that receive extra support from the district, including added help for teachers and family assistance.
Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools
Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
"I am an experienced administrator who is compassionate and has a drive to help every student succeed," Gagnon said in an email interview coordinated by Wolf. "In helping lead the Transformation Zone, I will work towards the district's goal of eliminating D and F schools in Pinellas. I want to make a positive difference in the lives of the community, faculty and children we serve."
Last year, Grego eventually picked St. Petersburg High assistant principal Darlene Lebo to fill the top spot at that school.
Gagnon's new appointment fills the shoes of Stephanie Woodford, who moved on to lead Lakewood Elementary.
"I applied for this position and went through the district's complete hiring process, including screening through the superintendent's cabinet," Gagnon said. "I am sure they worked hard to select the candidate best qualified to fill the position."
Times files were used in this report. Contact Claire McNeill at firstname.lastname@example.org.