Mel Pennell registered his three children at Westside Elementary School and never heard a word from the school’s new principal.
He has called and he has arrived at the school. He still has seen no sign of Dominick Ferello. He’s still waiting to meet him.
“It wasn’t for a lack of being around because I’ve definitely been around,” Pennell said Tuesday afternoon as he waited to pick up his three children, who are in kindergarten, third and fifth grade.
The head of the local teacher’s union is calling for Ferello’s removal following several complaints from teachers about his leadership and tardiness.
In light of a list of complaints from 20 Westside teachers and one parent, Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando County Teacher’s Association, said Monday he’ll be asking incoming superintendent Bryan Blavatt to remove Ferello as principal from the school.
Blavatt, who begins his duties as superintendent Thursday, said he’s aware of the situation and that he would look into the matter.
“A lot of times there is a lot more to any story than what we see at first blush,” Blavatt said. “But I’ll be looking into the matter to see what’s going on and if we find that there has been a violation, we’ll deal with it in that manner.”
Westside teachers have complained Ferello is frequently late for school and meetings, intimidates teachers and assigns others extra duties to provide research for his doctorate degree. They said his transfer this school year to Westside has resulted in low staff morale, scheduling hassles and a stifling of teacher individuality. He was transferred from Explorer K-8.
“The thing is, these are the same things we heard from back when he was principal at Explorer,” Vitalo said. “And in talking with the teachers‘ union rep up there, those problems followed him from back when he worked at Indian River (School District).”
Calls to the Indian River school district teacher’s union representative, where Ferello was principal of Treasure Coast Elementary School in Sebastian, were not returned by press deadline.
Leadership change bad from the beginning
According to teacher complaints, one educator went so far as to call Ferello a bully, especially toward younger teachers. Others said he told them repeatedly that they were being watched and that they could be moved around if they didn’t perform the way he wanted.
“I am tired of being threatened,” one teacher wrote anonymously. “‘You better do this’ and ‘You know I know what’s going on’ and ‘Don’t forget I’m watching,’ are things I am tired of hearing. I wish he was really watching us because he would see how wonderful he has it at Westside. But I know this can’t be because he is never around the way he promised he would be.”
Other teachers claim Ferello is stifling educators’ individual teaching methods by requiring them to teach the same lesson plan the same way at each grade level. The result, they claim, is that it forces teachers to keep moving on even if some students fall behind.
Ferello publically yells at teachers, educators wrote, and other administrators. They said he’s frequently late to school and to meetings with teachers, pits teachers against one another and isn’t available to parents or teachers.
One teacher wrote anonymously that she was required to go through so much extra training, she wasn’t able to attend her husband’s military deployment to the Middle East. Others claim Ferello piles on extra assignments and duties that include providing research for his doctorate degree about the single gender classrooms.
“I do realize I have lost some rights as an educator as to when, how and what I teach,” one fifth-grade teacher wrote, “but now I feel I am losing my rights as an individual. There are many educators in the building who have been here a long time and are looking to transfer.”
Although teachers say Ferello blames Assistant Principal Lillian DiTucci when things go wrong, most also agree her leadership is what keeps the school afloat.
Pennell said the students themselves have complained about Ferello’s temper.
“They say he comes into the classroom all the time and yells at them,” he said.
A history of problems?
Vitalo said similar complaints were lodged against Ferello last year while he was principal at Explorer K-8, but added many thought he was just in over his head and might perform better at Westside.
Last year, teachers complained that Ferello was a brusque manager who dressed down teachers in the school hallways and played favorites with keeping Assistant Principal Vivian Sweeney on staff while firing former assistant principals Sue Roth and Dana Pearce.
According to a story in Hernando Today, teachers told the newspaper they believed he did so because Sweeney is the wife of school board member John Sweeney and all three were friends with former superintendent Wayne Alexander.
At that time, Alexander would only state that he wouldn’t respond to rumor and gossip. Neither he nor Ferello would say why Ferello was being transferred to Westside.
However, Vitalo said it’s obvious to him the problem wasn’t confined to Explorer.
“We want a change in leadership, and I don’t mean a transfer,” Vitalo said, “because we don’t want this guy being some other school’s problem again.”
Vitalo added to those complaints saying that Ferello is using a double standard by requiring teachers to work extra time while he comes to school late and works on his doctorate degree – with the help of teacher and school resources for his research.
Although Ferello was not available for comment by press deadline, in a written response to the complaints, Ferello claims he was unaware that teachers at the school were unhappy.
He added he is sometimes late to the school – particularly during the wintertime – due to having severe asthma and requiring a treatment before leaving for work. He added that his breathing problems are set off by extreme hot and cold temperature changes.
“I must admit that I was taken by surprise,” Ferello said of the complaints. “I didn’t have any indication that concerns existed. A majority of the staff have never worked under any other administrator. Change is always difficult. This is a hard situation for anyone to follow and be accepted. I have and will continue to focus on promoting student achievement and helping everyone on our staff to continue to develop professionally.”
Reporter Tony Holt contributed to this article.