The controversy surrounding Connerton Elementary is being stirred up by a vocal few, Pasco school spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said. And that controversy may in part be based on an old miscommunication.
Two of Anna Falcone’s most vocal opponents—Peggy Lopez and Cathy Brown— never taught at Connerton Elementary, Romagnoli said.
Both were employed at Sanders Elementary before the school was shut down in 2010 and the students, as well as much of the staff, made the move to Connerton.
Falcone was hired as principal at Sanders in its last year, and facilitated its closing and the move to the new school.
One of the accusations circulating among those calling for Falcone's removal from the school is that she targeted teachers from Sanders Elementary in its final year that she did not want to make the transition to Connerton,
But Romagnoli and Falcone said that there was miscommunication at the time that may have led to misunderstanding among some staff members.
“There was some controversy in the beginning that was not Anna’s fault,” Romagnoli said.
Originally, the district planned to rebuild Sanders right away and have two schools. But when the economy took a nosedive and the population numbers fell, that plan changed.
“There was some miscommunication from the state,” as to whether the school would be considered a transfer, taking the entire staff, or if it would be considered a new school giving the district the ability to hire teachers at its discretion, Romagnoli said.
The original plan called for everyone employed at Sanders to transfer to Connerton, Falcone said.
When that changed and Falcone had to interview everyone in order to select the staff, “that was unsettling” to some, Falcone said.
Some felt the change in plans was something being done to get rid of select people so that the district could hire whoever it wanted, Romagnoli said.
Falcone was just following the contract, she said. “It made them resent me from the beginning.”
Brown and Lopez have been disgruntled for a long time, Romagnoli said. They have not been employed by the district since 2010, when they worked at Sanders Elementary under Falcone. And though she could not comment specifically, Romagnoli said there were personnel issues with both.
“Our goal is for current employees to have a positive culture for the children,” she said.
Both Lopez and Brown have said that the district’s recent transfer of assistant principal Wendy Carswell was a move to pacify those that oppose the Connerton administration, and it won’t work to quiet them. Both attended the July 3 school board meeting to voice their concerns again, and said they will continue their efforts to have Falcone removed.
“We’re going to keep at this until she is gone,” Brown said.
There is nothing to prevent them from showing up and speaking at every meeting, Romagnoli said. But the district doesn’t make personnel decisions based on that, she said.
“You can’t make decisions based on input from two people,” Romagnoli said.
District officials are interested in productive conversations, and there is a very clear, detailed process in place for filing grievances. “You can’t come back after two years and rehash it,” Romagnoli said.
But for Brown, the pain is still there, regardless of the time that's passed.
"Even after two years, it is still fresh in my mind," Brown said. She gave details about a 2010 incident with then-assistant principal Wendy Carswell at a . Brown filed a police report at the time after she said Carswell pushed her repeatedly at Sanders,a copy of which is attached to this article. However, Brown did not press charges. Nor did she file a grievance with the district after she was placed on administrative leave because she was too emotionally drained at the time, she said.
"I wasn't ready to retire," she said. "I loved those kids and they loved me."
Falcone said she was not on campus the day the incident occured between Brown and Carswell.
Current employees and parents who have concerns can contact Superintendent Heather Fiorentino, Assistant Superintendent David Scanga, or board members, Romagnoli said.
“There are plenty of avenues in place,” Romagnoli said. Complaints are taken seriously and they are looked into, she said.
One of those complaints is from a current Conenrton parent who, along with her two children, attended a demonstration calling for Falcone's removal.
, Becky Linares stated that during the demonstration, she believed Falcone's husband showed up wearing a Department of Transportation vest and took pictures of all the demonstrators.
Those pictures, in her opinion, were used to identify the parents and students involved in the demonstration, the letter stated.
Linares's first-grader was pulled out of class the following day by Carswell, who asked the girl what she was doing at the protest, according to Linares' letter. Linares called the district, and was eventually told that Carswell denied pulling the girl out of class.
Falcone said her husband did show up in a FDOT vest that day. He came straight from work because "he was very concerned for my safety," she said.
Threats had been made in online forums prior to that meeting, Romagnoli said.
"It's difficult for family members to see a loved one have things like that written about them," Falcone said. Her husband took a couple of pictures with his own computer camera, she said.
The district did investigate the claims surrounding the incident, Romagnoli said. "We couldn't find evidence that there had been any retaliation against the people out there."
With the recent move to transfer Carswell and bring in a new assistant principal, Claudia Steinacher, “We have the leadership team in place that will do the best job (at Connerton),” Romagnoli said.
In light of the controversy, the district did send letters last week to all of the teachers at Connerton, giving them the option to file for transfer to another school in the district.
By the deadline at 5 p.m. Tuesday, 11 teachers had requested a transfer, Romagnoli said.
"Three of those people specifically stated that they wanted to leave to move closer to home as they were transferred to Connerton during a recent budget reduction. The two teachers who were changing grade levels have taken positions at another school in our district," Romagnoli said.
Falcone said that though she has not spoken to the former employees at the center of the controversy in two years, she would welcome them to contact her directly “if they need closure.”
“I am certainly willing to talk to them,” Falcone said.