A damaged motorcycle, a 63-page investigation and a demoted principal are at the heart of a Manatee Elementary School controversy, which took center stage during the public comment portion of Tuesday night’s Manatee County School Board meeting.
A cadre of angry teachers addressed the board during the meeting, sharply criticizing Superintendent Diana Greene and her decision to demote former Manatee Elementary Principal Deborah Houston. Houston was placed on administrative leave in November, and she will serve the remainder of the year in an administrative position.
According to an investigation conducted by the Office of Professional Standards, in March 2016 Houston borrowed a motorcycle from Michelle McCormack, who is a pre-kindergarten teacher’s aide at the school. The report states that Houston returned the motorcycle two months later with more than $3,000 in damage, and Houston had not paid McCormack back as of Nov. 17.
Houston borrowed McCormack’s motorcycle and returned it with $1,800 in damage, according to the school district’s investigation.
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According to McCormack’s statement to investigators, Houston asked McCormack if she could borrow her motorcycle in March.
On May 1, McCormack asked for her bike back, but Houston did not return it until May 22. McCormack said Houston returned the bike with a bent clutch, broken taillight and scratched mirror.
“The most devastating part for me was she did not say, ‘Hey, Ms. McCormack I had an accident, I messed your bike up,’ something, instead I had to come home and (sic) blindsided,” McCormack wrote in her statement.
Houston told investigators she did damage the bike by tipping it over while she was sitting on it, but she and her boyfriend at the time thought they had repaired the damage. She said she didn’t tell McCormack about the incident because it was embarrassing and she believed the bike was fully repaired.
From July to November, McCormack and Houston went back and forth over the cost and details of the repair. McCormack said Houston’s former boyfriend, Robert McCarter, told her she should have told the insurance company that she damaged the bike, not Houston.
“He also commented that this would ‘cause problems for our (Ms. Houston and I) relationship as friends and as employee and employer,’” McCormack wrote in her statement.
McCarter told investigators he never intended to intimidate McCormack and did not recall the statement about the issue causing problems between the two women.
The teachers who spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting said Houston’s punishment was unfair.
Former Manatee Elementary teacher Linda Butler held a stone as she spoke and quoted from the gospel of John, telling board members “He who is without fault, let him cast the first stone.”
“She’s the best boss in the world, and what happened to her is completely unfair,” said Colby Cadwell, a fourth-grade teacher at the school who spoke on Tuesday. “You don’t just destroy a person’s career and reputation in life that way over such a small incident.”
Former Manatee Elementary teacher Linda Butler held a stone as she spoke and quoted from the gospel of John, telling board members, “He who is without fault, let him cast the first stone.”
Houston emailed board members on Dec. 14, arguing that Greene had unnecessarily escalated to one of the most severe punishments. In the email she wrote: “Board members, I am outraged by that injury to my character, and you should be, too. The sort of extreme action Dr. Greene took is reserved for employees who have abused children. What the parents of Manatee Elementary and the citizens of Manatee County must think of me!”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Greene said she did not share the details of the case with the public out of respect for Houston. She also said Houston’s demotion was the same punishment that former Sugg Middle School Principal Darlene Proue had received for similar misconduct.
Houston was not available for comment Wednesday night.