LARGO — In his first public comments on the issue, Pinellas County schools superintendent Mike Grego spoke out at Tuesday night's School Board meeting about the decision to transfer former Campbell Park Elementary principal Christine Hoffman after an email in which she made a racially insensitive directive to her staff.
Grego confirmed that Hoffman is under investigation by the district's Office of Professional Standards. Hoffman on Monday requested a transfer to school district headquarters until the investigation is complete. In an email sent April 18, she told her staff to cluster white students together as the predominantly black school took on the task of setting classroom rosters for next year.
"We did not need to have a further distraction with Campbell Park," especially during Florida Standards Assessments testing, Grego said. "That move was made not only in the best interest of the school but for the entire community."
Hoffman provided no explanation or context in her email. She later sent another email apologizing to staff for her "poor judgment" and sent a letter home to Campbell Park families, saying she was "approaching this as an opportunity to learn."
Several School Board members praised Grego and Hoffman's supervisor, Patricia Wright, for taking decisive action.
Board member Joanne Lentino said Hoffman's email and three recent teacher terminations at the school, "give me cause to question judgment of leadership."
"What is the climate of that school now?" she asked.
Board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea called the incident unfortunate, "but I think it was handled quickly to the benefit of the kids to keep kids calm."
Board members Linda Lerner and Eileen Long did not comment on the issue at the meeting.
Some members of the public spoke in favor of Hoffman's removal. Jinia Parker, an education advocate, asked that Hoffman not return to a school, and for transparency in the district's investigation of Hoffman.
"You guys have a lot of avenues to reach us," she said. "There's never a reason that I have to hunt information about something important like this. You guys have to get to us and we are there."
While the School Board was meeting, the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP held a news conference Tuesday evening at the Enoch Davis Center in St. Petersburg. Branch president Maria Scruggs called the Campbell Park incident an "atrocity in our community" and said people had "overwhelmingly" lost trust in the principal.
"Hoffman clearly demonstrated that she lacked a basic understanding of what it means for an administration to be color-blind and not favor one class or race of students over another," Scruggs said.
She said Hoffman should retire or resign if district investigators find that race has been used previously to determine class placements or if they find that minority students' civil rights have been violated. If Hoffman refuses to leave, then Grego should fire her, Scruggs said.
"What we've got to stop doing in this community is accepting mediocrity for minority students," she said.
Hilda Harrell, who attended the NAACP event, said she was hired as a classroom aide at Campbell Park in 2014 and was shocked but not surprised by Hoffman's email. She said her experience at the school was "pretty disheartening."
She said she raised concerns to Hoffman about having students walk to field trips when other schools had air-conditioned buses. Teachers routinely dimmed the lights or closed the blinds in an effort to limit behavior problems. And the teacher she worked with had students give her one of their shoes in exchange for a pencil — a practice meant to discourage students from walking off with pencils.
Harrell said she has since left the school and now works as a substitute teacher for the district.
"If you can go over to Campbell Park and spend a day in a classroom you'd be amazed by what goes on," she said.