BROOKSVILLE — Ambitious but with no experience leading a school district, Lori Romano came to Hernando County last summer with an opportunity to show just what kind of leader she could be.
A month in as the district's new superintendent, she got her first test.
Eastside Elementary School, after struggling for several years, dropped to an F grade in the state's accountability system, the district's first failing grade.
The news came on a Friday. By Monday, Romano had replaced the principal with a veteran administrator.
Looking back, in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Romano said, "My question to my staff was, 'Who is the best elementary principal that we have? Who can make the difference?' For me, it's all about students … and that was the best decision we could have made to have a positive impact on the education of those students."
The move has paid dividends.
Reinvigorated with new leadership and additional resources, Eastside students made huge strides this year, and the school appears likely to shed its F grade.
For the novice superintendent, during a year that turned out to be both busy and eventful, the decision offered one of the first glimpses of her leadership style.
Romano, 42, has routinely shown she is not afraid to act swiftly or make changes she feels are necessary to move the district forward.
"I think people perceived me as young, not having principal experience and inexperienced. … They questioned my assertiveness and decisiveness," she said. "That just took time for them to see that I'm data-driven and going to be very decisive when I need to be. I don't think people question that anymore, given the decisions that I've had to make."
From policy to personnel, Romano hasn't hesitated to make changes.
District officials decided recently to move to six-period instructional days for middle and high schools beginning with the 2014-15 school year. It's a decision that will create more uniformity among schools and lengthen instructional time, but will reduce the number of elective courses and opportunities for students to take credit-recovery classes during school hours.
Romano says the change will boost instructional time in the classroom and could save money and that there was a clear need to add instructional time, given the district's current C grade.
In March, Romano pushed through a reorganization of district offices. Passing the School Board 4-1, the plan moved or merged departments, changed titles and created a host of new positions, though many were not filled because money was not available.
In terms of personnel decisions, none was bigger — or more controversial — than the removal of Ken Pritz from his duties as assistant superintendent of teaching and learning in December. Pritz, a finalist himself for superintendent last year, was moved to the warehouse and was later not recommended for reappointment.
Romano also has shown that she's not afraid to publicly take difficult stances.
This month, she spoke against joining forces with the county on a shared 1-cent sales tax, saying she felt it would be a risk for the district. Instead, she wanted to ask voters to renew the district's half-cent sales tax.
Board members ultimately voted 3-2 to join the county.
"You have to know what you stand for in this work," she said, explaining her decision-making process. "I know what I stand for, and I'm willing to go forward."
Her approach has won praise from most board members, who have lauded her hard work, communication abilities and vision.
Romano's tireless work ethic became apparent soon after accepting the Hernando job, having served previously as director of adult, community, secondary and virtual education in Martin County.
Before her July 1 start date, she spent hours reviewing data and studying the Hernando district.
During the first days of the new school year, she crisscrossed the county, visiting each of the 23 schools, meeting with students and making her presence felt. She also set up lengthy interviews with everyone from School Board members to district-level administrators, principals and community members.
Romano counts the time she has spent in schools and the relationships she has built as among her biggest accomplishments.
She said she's also proud of the leadership team she has assembled and the structure they have been able to put in place.
"We've structured all of our work around teaching and learning and instruction," she said.
Romano said she's excited about the upcoming year and will continue to work on increasing the district's graduation rate and decreasing the dropout rate. She'll also focus on attendance issues and improving alternative and technical education.
Whatever initiatives the district might pursue, it will have to do it with limited resources and a growing list of maintenance needs at the district's aging schools.
"We have great people here," Romano said. "We just need the resources here to get done what we need to get done."
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes.