Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Education

DeWitt: Despite disputes, Hernando School Board has made progress

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There was a nasty discussion at a Hernando County School Board meeting last month.

Board member Beth Narverud said she had heard from parents and teachers about the chaotic situation at Moton Elementary School — now on its third full-time principal in less than six months — and wondered what the district was doing about it.

Board member Gus Guadagnino, a steadfast ally of superintendent Lori Romano, responded by blasting Narverud for "basically crucifying our superintendent without knowing all the details."

Romano agreed with him, saying that Narverud should have brought her concerns to her in private.

"We're a team, and team members don't withhold information until it needs to be public," Romano said during the informal meeting on Oct. 4.

Though, of course, I think Narverud was right in this case — that a public meeting is the prefect place to talk about the problems of a publicly funded school, especially in the government-in-the-sunshine state — that is not really my point.

Instead, this exchange is proof that the board, which met in its current form for the last time on Tuesday, is not totally harmonious. It's my way of conceding that it has its factions, that it's not close to perfect.

But the larger point is that it has moved beyond its disagreements to work pretty well. It's tackled big issues. And at a time when political divides have made so many institutions dysfunctional, it's an example of one that has functioned as it should.

Not every board member has agreed with every move, and a vote can only do so much to make things better in classrooms, but this board has stabilized leadership at the top, locking Romano into a four-year contract extension earlier this year.

It has seen the district through its worst financial crisis in recent memory, partly by backing a half-cent sales tax that voters approved in 2015. The district's state grade improved from a C to a B and stayed there this year when the grades of many other districts dropped.

Why?

The nature of the School Board helps. It's nonpartisan, and it tends to attract people who care a lot about the job it does (though I think board members have established that "it's all about the kids," and this doesn't need to be repeated a dozen times at every meeting).

But it's also because of the makeup of the board, which means it can offer lessons for anyone who hasn't already voted in this year's general election.

Look for politicians who are nonpartisan in action as well as name. The board's main factions consist of the two members willing to question Romano — Narverud, a Republican, and Susan Duval, a Democrat. On the other side, among the Romano defenders, Guadagnino is a Republican and Mark Johnson a Democrat.

Guadagnino was also an outspoken advocate of the usually non-GOP position that the sales tax was an absolute necessity. Narverud doesn't sound like a traditional, anti-union member of her party when she says it's too easy to fire teachers.

Look for balance. This board has worked partly because of those factions, which has given protection for Romano and her staff to do their jobs while giving voice to dissatisfied teachers and parents.

Look for candidates who don't need the jobs they are seeking. Board members' salaries, about $35,000, are a little more than half that of county commissioners', and these board members are or have been successful in other careers. Too often we've seen commissioners clearly trying to hold on to the best job they'll ever have.

Look for candidates who are willing to do their homework. Once they do, they usually find out that solutions are not simple enough to fit a strict party line.

They might find, for example, that Common Core academic standards are basically sound, but hardly a cure-all.

They might realize that standardized testing, though excessive, has its place — and that, in any case, there's only so much a board member can do about it.

Take it from outgoing board chairman Matt Foreman, who did not run for re-election and will be replaced by Linda Prescott, who won the District 2 seat in the primary election. Guadagnino, who faces challenger Bill Vonada in the District 4 race, could be gone as well.

Board members have to be willing to read "300 to 500 pages" of backup material before each meeting, Foreman said.

They have to understand the limits of their power and appreciate the needs of teachers and students.

"It's much tougher to sit in that chair than people think it is," Foreman said.

It is, at least, if you actually want to do some good.

Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.

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