Saturday, May 26, 2018
Education

Complaint alleges pressure to support Pasco school superintendent's campaign

LAND O'LAKES — A former Pasco County schools administrator has accused her then-boss of pressuring her to back superintendent Heather Fiorentino's re-election bid.

Buffey Simon, an assistant principal at Hudson Middle School until she was removed in late May, told the School Board late Tuesday that Hudson Middle principal Terry Holback urged her to attend and contribute to one of Fiorentino's spring fundraisers. Simon is now a teacher at River Ridge Middle.

"I was pressured twice by my supervisor (about) my plans on attending this event and was told it was in my best interest to support your boss," Simon told the board, adding that Fiorentino herself never made any overtures on this matter.

Fiorentino has said she does not condone such activity and would not want coerced campaign support. She has asked her staff to look into the matter.

"Employee relations is conducting an investigation into the allegations made by Ms. Simon," district spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said.

Holback could not be reached for comment.

District policy prohibits employees from participating in campaign activities during work hours. Simon said Holback approached her about the fundraiser while she was on duty.

The district investigation comes on the heels of the School Board's decision to hire outside counsel to look into similar allegations that Fiorentino or her direct staff attempted to intimidate employees into supporting her campaign. Fiorentino denied the claims, adding that they were vague and anonymous and therefore impossible to defend against.

On Wednesday, Bayonet Point Middle School principal Mike Asbell defended Fiorentino, saying he was "sick and tired" of all the denunciations.

"Heather has never pressured anyone, to my knowledge," Asbell said. "That was John (Long's) regime. ... I resented the way I was treated by John Long's administration, as an administrator, of the things we were expected to do."

Still, the accusations linger in this year's campaign, and they have grown more pointed.

"This was a specific comment (Tuesday) which the superintendent and her staff heard," board chairwoman Joanne Hurley said, alluding to Simon's allegations. "Board policy says when the superintendent receives a specific allegation, she should investigate it. I'm glad to hear that's what her department is doing."

Simon also raised questions about a text message invitation to the fundraiser "encouraging my attendance and financial contribution" she received from Romagnoli in the spring during school hours.

"She's not my BFF," she said of Romagnoli. "She doesn't have my cellphone number. How did she get it?"

Romagnoli has said she took a vacation day to send the text message to administrators and that she gathered phone numbers through personal contacts, not by using district records.

Simon said she got a call from employee relations supervisor Betsy Kuhn early Wednesday and that she would fully cooperate with any review. She said she didn't mention Holback's alleged pressuring earlier because she did not see it as a major reason for why she was removed from her administrative post.

Simon, who contributed $75 in June to Fiorentino challenger Kurt Browning, has filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the district, stating that she was harassed for wanting to have a child. The district has denied that accusation.

When the board launched its own investigation into political activity in the superintendent's race, she said, it seemed like time to speak up.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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