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Investigation of principal reveals strife among staff, PTA at Hillsborough's Bailey Elementary

Larry Sykes, in one of his last acts as chief of schools, reassigned Bailey Elementary principal Russell Wallace to assistant principal at Bryan Elementary at his same pay: $77,000 a year. 
Larry Sykes, in one of his last acts as chief of schools, reassigned Bailey Elementary principal Russell Wallace to assistant principal at Bryan Elementary at his same pay: $77,000 a year. 
Published Jul. 22, 2016

DOVER — It began in April, when the Hills-borough County School District froze end-of-the-year spending earlier than usual.

Bailey Elementary Principal Russell Wallace wanted to send teachers to a conference in Orlando. So he turned to the PTA for $4,600. He was told no.

But it didn't end there.

Wallace requested — demanded, some say — to know which PTA officers voted yes and which ones voted no.

Witnesses said he told the PTA leaders he might assign their children his worst teachers and might hold the kids back a year. Instead of "worst" he used a word that began with "s," witnesses said. They also heard him say the "f" word, though Wallace denied threatening or swearing.

The episode touched off an investigation that revealed three assistant principals found Wallace impossible to work for, a former boss called his judgment unreliable, there were allegations he had his wife coach his teachers, and hints that he mishandled state tests.

There is no suggestion in the 168-page investigative file that Wallace ever harmed a child, except the possibility that poor communication led to chaos in the lunchroom and at dismissal. There was a letter of support from a parent and more than one suggestion that Assistant Principal Jamie Whitlow — now the subject of a second investigation — was part of the problem.

Much of the information in this report is taken from the file, including Wallace's side of the story. He did not speak with the Tampa Bay Times.

In the end, officials chose not to fire Wallace but make him assistant principal at Bryan Elementary in Plant City. And in a practice that rankles some School Board members, officials did not lower his pay of $77,000 a year.

Wrote Larry Sykes, who reassigned Wallace in one of his last acts as chief of schools: "Your current salary will be held harmless."

•••

Built in 2009 near Strawberry Crest High School, B-rated Bailey Elementary draws from rural and suburban communities. In demographics, it's about average: half white and a quarter Hispanic, with 72 percent of students getting free lunch.

Wallace, 42, took over in 2013 after working as assistant principal at Valrico Elementary for principal Anthony Montoto. Now at Frost Elementary, Montoto told investigators he was warned Wallace could be overbearing and irrational.

That was an accurate description, Montoto told them. He found Wallace had trouble with women who disagreed with him.

Once there was gossip about a possible relationship between Wallace and a female teacher. While driving Wallace to a banquet, Montoto said he advised him to avoid any situation that might look suspicious, such as closed-door meetings.

Wallace "went crazy into a rage," Montoto said, and would not talk to him at the banquet. After that, their relationship was strained.

•••

At Bailey, there was conflict between Wallace and his first assistant principal, Carol Mayo, who has since transferred.

It began with little things, like Wallace failing to tell Mayo about schedule changes. Teachers asked her to sit in on their meetings with him, she said. Mayo did not feel comfortable staying late after school if Wallace was there. Wallace, she said, told her she intimidated teachers. But he never gave specifics, and later he accused her of trying to lure teachers to another school.

At times he ignored her. When things got really bad, she said, he assigned her to breakfast and lunchroom duty every day. To this day, she told investigators, she fears Wallace because "he knew where she lived."

Laura Edwards, who replaced Mayo, described her own unsettling run-ins. After she told him her computer skills were not strong, she said Wallace listed her on a staff roster as "tech wizard" instead of her name. He shot video as she took a phone call from a parent. She asked him not to record her. Later, when she was struggling to merge testing data, he said he would have to video her because "you'd have to be an idiot not to get this."

He made disparaging remarks about a reading teacher, telling Edwards before a meeting that it would not end until the teacher cried. He brought his wife in from Polk County for teacher training. He even quarrelled with Edwards over whether she could order envelopes for report cards. Edwards was transferred to Sessums Elementary.

•••

Things were no more harmonious between Wallace and Whitlow, the assistant principal now under investigation, although the file contains fewer details about that situation.

Whitlow told investigators "Mr. Wallace scares her." Discussing him with the PTA parents, who met with her at a nearby McDonald's, she called him "evil" in a text, they said. Teachers, who were invited by a reading coach to write statements, said the staff was divided between "Team Wallace" and "Team Whitlow."

In an interview with investigators, Wallace said Whitlow has a reputation for creating problems and violates district policy by corresponding with teachers and parents on Facebook.

A school therapist, in her statement, described her own disturbing experience — but with Whitlow, not Wallace. She wrote that Whitlow acted disrespectfully when a counselor at Bailey had a mental health crisis. Whitlow, according to the letter, said the counselor was fixated on the therapist, thinking she was "running a child trafficking ring and knocking out children's teeth."

Wallace handled the situation with far more discretion, she wrote, adding: "He was a faithful leader who is well loved by many. I hope that our paths cross again in the future."

•••

Wallace spoke to the Times after his first year at Bailey, when the school grade rose from a D to an A. The D could have been an F, but for a state leniency policy.

Wallace recalled the first day of the 2013-14 year, when superintendent MaryEllen Elia held her annual news conference at Graham Elementary School to celebrate that school's improvement.

He had his staff visualize Bailey as an A school. He could picture Elia holding the next year's event in his media center. He even rearranged the furniture.

It happened just like that. Wallace credited his staff and students with hard work, including 7 a.m. sessions to analyze data.

One letter in the investigative file raises other possibilities.

"There have been possible improprieties with regards to accuracy of students' testing and Mr. Wallace has been known to be instrumental in securing higher scores than actually achieved," says the letter, which was unsigned.

But the file does not indicate officials suspected Wallace of tampering with tests. Instead, he was reassigned because of the allegations of "threatening and intimidating behavior," which the district found to be substantiated.

•••

In a six-page response, Wallace rebutted nearly every allegation. He said he was never able to defend himself during the investigation, beyond an initial interview. He said that, despite statements about complaints against him, he had top ratings from Montoto, his former principal, and from Jerry Jackson, the area superintendent. The district said his last two ratings were effective and highly effective.

Wallace wrote that he could hardly be accused of threatening PTA parents when he lets them choose their children's teachers. He offered emails as proof.

He wrote that Edwards was removed because she mistreated staff, and "she remains bitter to this day." He never meant to ignore Mayo, he wrote. But "we were busy transforming the school from an 'F' to an 'A' in one year" and so he spent a lot of time in classrooms with the communications radio off.

He attached climate surveys to show morale improved at Bailey on his watch. He complained about treatment from the area superintendent, saying he met with Jackson only because superintendent Jeff Eakins talked him into it.

• • •

On Tuesday, the School Board approved Jarrod Haneline, the former assistant principal of Bryan Elementary, as Bailey's next principal.

At a recent workshop, board chairwoman April Griffin asked for a list of principals who were unsuccessful and reassigned, but kept their salaries. In this time of tight budgets, she wants the practice changed. "Make them earn their way back to their job as a principal," she said.

As a step in that direction, Wallace was ordered into ethics training.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampbay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.