BROOKSVILLE — At least two words can sum up developments in the Hernando School District in 2010: new and improved.
A new superintendent arrived in April.
A new high school opened in Weeki Wachee and construction started on a K-8 school next door.
And the district improved from an overall B grade to an A in the state's accountability system, with two struggling high schools boasting significant gains.
But while there was lots to celebrate, there were lowlights and challenges, too. Despite the A grade, Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores show trouble areas and need for more work. An elementary school principal was transferred after teachers claimed he bullied them. And several teachers ran afoul of district rules, including two who sent a politically charged e-mail that prompted a School Board member to call for the job of a longtime principal.
Overall, though, 2010 has been a good year considering the tight budget, stricter class size requirements and other challenges, superintendent Bryan Blavatt said last week.
"It's been a lot better than I thought it would be," he said. "I think we're making real progress toward our goals."
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Blavatt charmed and impressed from the start.
One of six finalists, he was clearly at ease fielding questions from School Board members during his job interview last January, cracking jokes and citing some Hernando student performance trends to show he'd done homework.
He came with an impressive resume, boasting 40 years in the field, 25 of them as an administrator. The 64-year-old Maryland native has two master's degrees — one in curriculum and one in educational administration — and a law degree.
The finalists included two internal candidates, then-interim superintendent Sonya Jackson and Hernando High principal Ken Pritz, who had years of executive-level experience here. But a unanimous board picked Blavatt, noting his experience and one especially encouraging bullet point: He served for 12 years as superintendent in Boone County, Ky., the longest tenure in the county's history.
Blavatt told the board he realized he'd retired too early, and that he could commit several years to Hernando. He called the district "a sleeping giant" that was "too good not to get better."
After inking a three-year contract with an annual salary of $130,000, Blavatt started April 1 amid hopes for stability after the often rocky tenure of his predecessor Wayne Alexander, who left in September 2009 after the board lost faith in his ability to lead. Blavatt vowed to take a measured approach to change. Jackson returned to the assistant superintendent post.
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During his job interview, Blavatt said he would happily stake part of his salary on student performance once he got a "baseline" of data. That data came two months after his arrival, when the state released the most recent school grades in its A-Plus accountability system.
It was reason to celebrate. The district had earned an A, a grade better than the previous year and a return to the A status the district achieved two years prior. Nine of Hernando's 17 elementary, middle and K-8 schools maintained their grades — and all of those were A's and B's. Two more schools moved up one grade, both to an A. None of the 17 schools scored lower than a C.
Blavatt offered measured praise, noting plenty of room for improvement. Four elementary schools fell at least one letter grade. Overall, 69 percent of Hernando's students performed at or above grade level in reading; 74 percent in math; 86 percent in writing; and 49 percent in science.
The district enjoyed more news of progress last month when high school grades arrived.
Central High, which has struggled in the past few years, shot from a D grade to a B, the highest grade the school has earned since the grading system started in 1999. Hernando High, which had been unable to improve its D grade for five years, ticked up to a C. Principals there expect more improvement after spending about $1.4 million in federal grant money to hire additional staffers to focus on remediation, student attendance and teacher training.
The other two local high schools that received grades also had reason to celebrate. Nature Coast Technical earned a B, improving from a C, and Springstead High maintained its B grade.
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As fears about the budget grew and concerns about how to pay for more teachers to meet stricter class size mounted, the board pondered places to cut.
At Blavatt's urging, the board approved new school start times to save an estimated $750,000 by reducing the number of buses and drivers (no one was laid off). Some parents grumbled at public meetings, but not loud enough to change board members' minds. The board shelved a plan to charge a fee for sports or activities, but agreed to form a committee to look at the issue.
The board didn't act on all of Blavatt recommendations, though. They shot down his request to add a second assistant superintendent. And a majority of board members — including three who would be up for re-election later in the year — refused to increase the school tax rate by 25 cents for every $1,000 of taxable property value to bolster the operating fund by an estimated $2.2 million.
The board did agree to ask voters through a referendum for permission to levy the tax for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 budget years. Voters answered that in November with a resounding no.
The picture brightened significantly over the summer when the district nailed down carryover savings from the previous year, and the board ultimately passed a $325.6 million budget for 2010-11 without resorting to any nightmarish cuts despite a nearly 11 percent drop in property values.
The board decided to join the state's ultimately successful effort to garner millions from the federal Race to the Top grant, and Hernando will have about $2.2 million over four years.
The district made plenty of progress on the brick and mortar front. Deltona and Suncoast Elementary schools opened new buildings to replace portables.
The new crown jewel is the $41 million Weeki Wachee High School. Replete with environmentally friendly features, the home of the Hornets opened in August and welcomed freshmen and sophomores who will fill in the upper grades starting next year. New high school attendance boundaries prompted by the new school eased crowded conditions at Springstead and Central.
Crews also broke ground on the yet-to-be named K-8 school next door to Weeki Wachee High. The elementary portion of the school is set to open in the fall.
After much debate and some passionate pleas on both sides, the board decided to move the district's Quest Academy for the Gifted from Explorer K-8, and the program opened in its new home at Challenger K-8 in August. The move provided much needed breathing room at overcrowded Explorer.
One of the biggest collective sighs of relief came earlier this month when the district learned it had met the stricter class size requirements that took effect in October, avoiding potentially hefty fines from the state. The effort has already cost about $1.4 million to hire long-term substitutes and provide supplemental pay for teachers taking on extra classes.
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Blavatt had plenty of personnel issues to tackle, including a volatile situation at Westside Elementary waiting for him when he arrived.
More than a dozen staffers at the school had written letters to Jackson complaining about the management style of principal Dominick Ferello. Teachers described him as a surly, heavy-handed leader who was often late to school and used intimidation to manage the staff.
Ferello, who had been moved to Westside after opening Explorer K-8, denied that he bullied teachers, saying that the staff was having a hard time adjusting to him after the retirement of longtime principal Charles Johnson. But Ferello agreed to a reassignment, and Blavatt moved him to an assistant principal post at Eastside Elementary. Blavatt tapped Nancy Kesselring, a longtime educator who most recently served as an assistant principal in Pasco, to replace him.
In February, Stephen Ray Thompson was fired after a single season as head coach of the Springstead High School boys' basketball team. The following month, the Times reported that Thompson, who also taught physical education and health teacher, had embellished or fabricated parts of his resume, including his win-loss record.
Thompson offered little to explain the discrepancies. District officials said they followed standard procedures in looking into Thompson's background, but Springstead High principal Susan Duval acknowledged that Thompson may have succeeded in fabricating parts of his resume, noting that school officials typically cannot confirm every piece of an applicant's work history.
Several teachers faced disciplinary action this year.
Jason Gray, a culinary arts teacher and girls soccer coach at Central High School, was fired after calling a student while intoxicated last April. Gray, 37, claimed he called the girl by mistake when he tried to call his mother to ask her to pick him up. The student said Gray realized who she was and still tried to pressure her to give him a ride home, according to a district investigation report.
In May, Nature Coast teacher and girls basketball coach Travis Lamle was suspended without pay for 10 days and given a letter of reprimand after swimming alone with a student at her home. Lamle was removed as coach and is forbidden from coaching any sport for the next five years.
In September, Hernando High teacher Jason Galitsky was reprimanded for failing to seek administrator approval before recommending that his students read The Heroin Diaries, a memoir by Nikki Sixx, bassist for the heavy metal band Motley Crue. The book, written as a cautionary tale about the dangers of drug abuse, contains explicit language and descriptions of drug use and photos. Galitsky defended the book as appropriate for students in his advanced placement psychology class.
Most recently, School Board member Dianne Bonfield called for the firing of Challenger K-8 principal Sue Stoops, assistant principal Cindy Stewart and kindergarten teacher Jessica Nicolai after Nicolai sent an e-mail to fellow teachers urging them to vote against Bonfield and fellow board members Sandra Nicholson and John Sweeney. Blavatt had already sent a reprimand letter to Nicolai and letters of direction to Stoops and Stewart and said he saw no reason for further discipline.
Nicholson was the only incumbent ousted this year, losing a tight race to former teacher Cynthia Moore.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]