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Gradebook

Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with Pasco County schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino

23

April

heatherf.jpgIt's not been party time for Pasco County schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino. She's faced some criticism for her leadership in a recent review of her administration. She's also struggled, along with other superintendents, to make budget ends meet amid shrinking revenue and growing demands. Fiorentino spoke about current events, and her plans for her future, with reporter Jeff Solochek and editorial writer C.T. Bowen. Here's an edited version of the conversation.

 

I want to start with the FADSS report. ... Before I ask any specific questions, I want to ask what is your general, overall reaction to what is in there?

To be honest, I am still digesting it all. Staff is going through it. ... We are going to get input from everyone and then we are going to move forward with it. I think it brought up some pieces where it shows we have some areas to improve upon. It also shows some of it was inaccurate. ...

Like what?

One recommendation was that the leadership team meet weekly instead of biweekly. We already meet every Tuesday, all day. ...

Are you concerned then that because some of their basic facts are not correct that their underlying findings are not correct?

No, not throughout the entire thing. There are some places that we can definitely look at and need to improve. They were also talking about realignment. And some of it is also the realignment they were talking about is in a perfect world, those are best practices. And yes, that should be what we do. Unfortunately, with the economy the way it is, it is not a perfect world. We are not going to be able to do many of the suggestions that they had. But again, that doesn't mean you don't get a five-year plan. ... This year, what are the things we can do with limited money and maybe reorganize some things. We are looking at that.

You have some people retiring and some positions coming open. Could you do some of the realignment?

That's what I'm saying. Yeah. We are looking at that now. How can we do some of the realignment and start to move some of the people now? There are some realignments that we're also going to have to look at because we've made so many cuts and there have been so many retirements. ... In the past we did a lot through attrition, so it hasn't equally fallen, if you will. You might have one department with four people out and another department with only one person out. ... We might have to realign due to that....

So some of the ideas that they have like area superintendents. Are those ideas that you like? Are they ideas you're going to build on? Or are there other ideas that you're looking at instead?

FADSS has always come back with the area superintendents. I am letting staff go back and get some additional information. ... We're right now down two assistant superintendents. Jim (Davis) being gone has been major. That was the biggest thing I did up here was to bring people in to help the schools. And to say to the assistant superintendents, You aren't just going to have the principals come up here. You're going to go to the schools. ... The principals loved that. Especially because we have so many new principals. ... So we need people with that expertise to be able to go out to the schools to help the principals. In the past you might have one new principal and he could call five different principals that have 20 years experience. Now you might have one that has 20 years and five that don't.

So are you finding somebody to do Jim Davis' old job?

That's part of the reorganization. How are we going to look at that? I'm not going to just make a decision. I want to talk to my staff. They certainly have opinions. It's always been a big concern in Pasco County about area superintendents. ... I guess because Pasco always the (US) 41 divide attitude. They don't want to have area superintendents where we'll have it east vs. west again. ...

When was the survey (of administrators) done?

It was after Jim had left. And that's what we think a lot of the comments were made. Because we had Dave (Scanga) watching 45 schools, where we used to have two people watching elementary schools. And we had one person overseeing secondary, where we used to have two. We went from four to two. Then there was the economy. People had just found out there were going to be layoffs. Had the survey been done in October I think you would have heard some different things. I mean, it couldn't have been done at a worse time. ... 

Let's talk about the other side of it, the climate survey part. It sounded like there was a lot of finger pointing. The board micromanages. The superintendent micromanages. Nobody listens. ... How do you deal with all that? We were joking around about the line about you, your strong will implemented verbally and frequently. I love that line. You can deal with that. Is that a big problem, the way you deal with people? ...

There is never a time that you can't go back to look at the report and be reflective and say there are areas you need to improve on. ... Some of the frustration is there have been so many changes. The mandates have been coming down so quick and furious from Tallahassee. (She details some examples of how changing rules lead to mixed messages coming from the district office to the schools.) ... 

What about some of the tensions between the different layers of the district -- you and the board, the school administration and the district administration. Do you see any faults in there? Or is it all just circumstantial?

Well, one, let's start with the board and myself. We have a brand new board. Everyone is trying to learn their roles. Everyone is trying to build new relationships. And next week we are going to master board training. That was a big assistance last time, when I came on. ... It helped everyone to understand their roles. It also helped fine tune communication.

For Pasco County, we have the youngest board that I can think of in recent memory (in terms of length of service). ... Relatively, as far as the leadership team, we have a very young, new team for Pasco County. We're building our relationships with three new board members. ... 

In the past, legislation, go back 10 years ago. We had the A Plus plan. It was heavy, it was strong. It was one bill. That was it. We were done. Today, what do we have? 500 bills ... dealing purely with education and education retirement. When you're dealing with those types of numbers, and some of them contradict each other ... we've got to have a budget by July. I won't know what my funding is until May. There are threats the governor is going to veto it. There is such a mass of confusion coming down, it is frustrating for everyone. And every person is at a different level of understanding what is coming down. 

Can we do a better job of communication? Absolutely. And I believe that is one of the areas we have been working on. We have grown so big, and people keep forgetting that. When I came here we had 54, 56 schools. Now we have 84. We you're trying to communicate out to 10,000 employees and all the families, it has gotten harder. We have to do better.

Are you too strong willed?

You know, I am who I am. Can I improve? Yes. But I also think if you are going to run a big organization, you have to be a strong leader. These are challenging times. They are times of opportunities to give me growth. I don't think you want a weak leader, either. But it doesn't mean that I don't listen. And it doesn't mean that I don't work with people. ... (She notes that budget presentations to all employees have helped people understand what is happening better.) For example, we don't have as many people today saying stop building schools and give me a pay raise. That was a big thing for a long time.

But that doesn't change the relationship between you and, say, (board member) Mr. Luikart, who keeps saying, Where's my information?

That's part of our learning our roles. That is something that we are working on. We try to provide them information. Sometimes he needs to be calling my office to get his information (instead of departments). ...

Not to be disrespectful, but strong willed and strong leader are two different things. When I read that report, as an outsider you can read it and think, that's a nice way of saying she can be loud and abusive. And that's different from being a strong leader. ...

Again, I am telling you, I have read the report. This is a time when we all do a little self reflecting, and we can make improvements on what those areas are. That might be what some people have perceived. If that's that, I will change it. ...

Let's turn to the budget. ... You've had all these town hall meetings. Have you heard any good ideas yet for what to cut? Because cuts are coming.

We just finished the last town hall meeting. We as staff have heard pretty loud and clear ... that elimination of the arts won't be a recommendation. That doesn't mean there won't be cuts. ... There were some good ideas. Right now Summer (Romagnoli) is in the process of putting them together. There is some information that needs to be looked at to see if it was accurate or not. ... 

You've got to allocations, you've got to let people know if they've got their jobs. You have to know what classes you're going to offer so kids can register. I'm curious. I saw the list (of possible cuts) you had up on the wall. If you did all that stuff, you'd have no school district left, basically.

Exactly. That's what you also have to keep in mind, even with the art and music. You have to have well-rounded kids that's No. 1. Our mission has to be children. We have to keep our compass on north. North has to be children and what's the best education we can provide them. In that you also have to make sure that your staff, you're meeting their needs and making sure they're able to do their jobs.

So as we move forward with that, some of the things we have to do are - let's choose arts and music as an example. Can we shorten some of the periods? Yes. Can we have some of the teachers go to different schools? Yes. Can you eliminate them? Probably not at the elementary level.... It's good for the kids. Last night was the first time, though, I heard someone say don't cut the arts, cut English and math. ...

Everybody comes out and says what you shouldn't cut. ... What can you cut? Can you cut sports? Can you cut busing?

You've got to remember, we've done many many of the cuts. This is not just this year. So we've taken middle schools and we've combined them, already their sports. We've cut some of the transportation. Now the question is, can we cut the rest of the transportation? For sports, I'm talking. Can we tell the band kids they're no longer allowed to ride on the bus, they'll have to find their own way? Those are some of the questions we're exploring. ...

There were a lot of suggestions that came across, have us pay for this, have us pay for that. Legally we're not allowed to. Let us pay for summer school. Make us pay for textbooks. Well, you can't. ...

I am trying to figure out how you get to $60 million.

There will be layoffs. ... Lynne (Webb, USEP president) and I are trying to work together. This year you are seeing a more collegial relationship between the two of us trying to get things done. She realizes that we're really facing a $60 million cut, there is no money there, that we really need to work together. We want to protect as many employees as we move forward, as we protect employees it is best for the students. But I can tell you there will be layoffs next year. There will be furlough days. ...

We at the district took it on the chin each year because I realize the classroom is where it happens. That's where the rubber meets the road. However, in hindsight it may have been better to let people know ahead of time. Because they didn't feel the pain, they didn't know the kinds of cuts we were making. The first year we cut $16 million, the next year we cut $28 million. We aren't talking chump change. ...

I've heard ... I'll use the term punitive budgeting. You've got to make people feel the pain. That's why you've got to cut sports. That's why you have to go to a four-day school week and make it inconvenient for the parents. Otherwise they're not going to pay attention. ..

You haven't heard me mention four-day weeks. As much as people want us to look at it, and as many times we hear parents speak, I think they may be parents who are employees. Which may not have the same impact on them as on parents who are not our employees. The one phone call I received from Bob White last year, the sheriff, was, Please don't go to a four-day week. Our crime rate will skyrocket. But that was a suggestion that was made. ... It's not one I am looking at personally. I have been asked to look at the data, and we are doing that. ... But just knowing the bigger picture of what it could affect is a major concern to me. ...

How do you make people feel and understand you are actually making cuts? .. Parents see kids going to school, taking class. Maybe they have to bring an extra roll of toilet paper to school because somebody said they ran out. But really they're not feeling it.

The other thing you'll also see is, we will have layoffs this year. And probably the normal Joe Blow parent won't notice a difference, hopefully, if we do our job right. Because if you're keeping your focus and compass on learning for the child, the adults are going to feel it. The children will feel some of it because yes, will there be less services that are provides, and less courses. But on the average, Joe Parent dropping their child off won't notice it. ... The doors are going to open, their children are going to go in. Unless it is totally eliminated, they probably would never notice anything. The idea of punitive budgeting, it doesn't work. ... I keep my compass on north.

Speaking of that, everybody is expecting you to run for another term as superintendent. Are you?

I am not throwing out either way. I am focused right now on the budget. I am planning on it. But I am focused on the budget.

It seems like a really bad time to be a superintendent.

I know many of my colleagues in many counties have left. If I go back and see the ones that came in with me or before me, there are few. It was more fun in 2004 when there was money. The job has never been easy. But at least you had money to deal with the issues. Now you have issues on top of issues with no money. It's much more difficult.

 

[Last modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 3:38pm]

    

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