Principal Patty Hoffman spoke in a firm but reassuring tone to the teary-eyed third-grader who stood in her office holding a teacher's note and a coloring assignment covered with wayward scrawl.
"This isn't the end of the world -- it's just a little blip," the interim leader of Arthur Slade Regional Catholic School told the boy, after getting him to promise he would finish his assignment more carefully.
It is with the same balance of authority and compassion that Hoffman has taken charge of the Glen Burnie school since July, when its longtime principal resigned abruptly.
Janice McIntosh left amid allegations by the Archdiocese of Baltimore that she misappropriated more than $41,000 in school funds -- including money from fund-raisers -- over 10 years. No criminal charges have been filed, but the archdiocese has forwarded information to the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office.
Reached by telephone at home, McIntosh declined to comment on the allegations, which were detailed to parents in letters from the archdiocese and the school's board of trustees in recent months.
Parents and teachers say that Hoffman, who was a popular assistant principal at Arthur Slade for a decade, has prevented the affair from becoming too distracting by keeping everyone occupied with the school.
'I forgive her'
But angry feelings still exist among some parents who feel that McIntosh should be punished.
"As a Christian person, I forgive her ... but she needs to be held accountable," said Greg Wessel, a Severn resident who has two daughters at the school.
Hoffman, 53, said she has not spoken to her former boss in several months. She has been busy adjusting to her new role, learning the financial aspect of running a school and delegating duties she was used to doing herself.
The Michigan native said she did not hesitate when the school board asked her to step in as Arthur Slade's principal for the year. "To me, it was a no-brainer," Hoffman said. "Of course I was going to do it."
The 880-pupil school, which serves prekindergarten through eighth grade, is near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
It was the place where Hoffman got her first teaching job in the early 1970s, and it was where she returned to coach cheerleading and begin a career in administration. As an assistant principal, she forged friendly ties with teachers and parents and was a visible presence at fund-raisers and school activities.
Despite McIntosh's resignation, Hoffman and her staff agreed early to focus on the new school year and to put aside their feelings about what happened to the former principal.
School staff had to begin making plans to celebrate Arthur Slade's 50th anniversary this September. Teachers had a new computerized grading system to learn.
Hoffman also took steps to keep pupils occupied as well, such as allowing younger children to wear gym clothes to school instead of their plaid uniform on days when they have physical education.
Most of all, Hoffman says, she tried to be a stable, familiar presence at the school. "I was still going to stay the same. Things were going to stay the same," she said.
On a frigid afternoon this month, Hoffman stood in front of the school -- as she does nearly every day -- and helped direct cars out of the parking lot.
She waved to get a child's attention as he and his mother rolled past in their car, then pointed to her nose. "He got bopped on the nose today," she said. The pupil waved back and nodded vigorously to indicate that he was fine.
Easing the transition
Parent Mike Audino said Hoffman's warm personality has helped ease the transition. "She's an absolute sweetheart," he said. "Because of the kind of person she is, I will tend to forget about what happened."
But McIntosh's resignation and circumstances surrounding it left a deep impression among some parents who say that they are disappointed by how long it took the archdiocese to turn the matter over to state prosecutors.
The archdiocese began investigating the situation at the end of June and presented what it found to the state's attorney's office Dec. 23.
"I'm not happy at all with the way the archdiocese has handled this," said parent Jill Izquierdo. She said the incident has made her wary of participating in school fund-raisers, and that if her daughter, a seventh-grader, were younger, she would consider pulling her out.
Hoffman said the school was upfront with parents about what it knew of the complaints involving the former principal. School officials say they have instituted tighter financial controls.
In a letter last month, Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools, assured parents that the issues that led to McIntosh's resignation involved her alone and that the school's financial stability had not been threatened.
"I believe what parents want to do now is move forward," Valenti said.
Many parents hope that Hoffman will stay on the job permanently. According to the school board, she will have to go through an application process like other candidates.
Hoffman said she would love to become the permanent principal. Failing that, she would like to return to her old job as assistant principal.
Board treasurer Scott Thayer said she stands a good chance: "She's done an outstanding job. ... I would say she certainly has demonstrated outstanding abilities that would make her an outstanding candidate."