In Florida's debate over teacher quality, Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia has captured the spotlight with her district's seven-year initiative to improve evaluations.
The Pasco County School District hasn't been at the forefront of reform efforts. The School Board couldn't even persuade the teachers union to participate in a federal grant program, Race to the Top, aimed at improving schools nationally.
Yet Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino sat at the table Wednesday, advising the Florida Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee on the issues.
"We trust her," Chairman Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, said. "She was on my committee when I was chair of the Appropriations Committee in the House. We've been good friends."
Wise said he wanted to have a more inclusive effort in crafting a new version of last year's Senate Bill 6, which aimed to revamp the way teachers are hired, paid, evaluated and certified. He invited superintendents from small, medium and large districts to speak on Wednesday, and Fiorentino seemed a natural choice, having not appeared before the committee on the topic previously, he said.
Fiorentino welcomed the opportunity, and did not hold back her critique of the state initiative.
Changes to the current methods might be needed, she said, but simply dropping them onto teachers and administrators without consideration of many connected issues will be of no value.
She noted, for instance, that the state Constitution and statutes require collective bargaining on many of the procedures proposed for revision. Changing only the laws relating to teacher hiring and the like could leave districts in the position of dealing with many lawsuits over implementation, she said.
She also spoke about the need to have financial resources to alter hiring, evaluation, testing and other areas up for consideration, noting that most districts face major shortfalls in the coming year. Perhaps a good idea, Fiorentino suggested, would be to use the Race to the Top initiatives that most districts are working on as a starting point that can be built upon.
"I do think that you are moving in the right direction," Fiorentino told the panel. "I am just asking you to take time to be thoughtful."
It's not the first time Fiorentino, who leads the nation's largest school district with an elected superintendent, has had the ear of key policymakers.
Last year, she regularly conferred with the chairmen of the House Education Policy committee and council, both of whom hailed from Pasco County and often carried Fiorentino's ideas into legislation. She also counted state Sen. Nancy Detert, the former chairwoman of the Senate Pre-K-12 Committee, among her friends and confidants from when they served in the Florida House together, along with Wise.
Fiorentino acknowledged that, while they listen, they don't always agree. But that won't stop her from continuing to make the case for schools and the district.
School Board member Steve Luikart said it can only help the Pasco School District to have its superintendent testifying in Tallahassee.
"I think it helps us," Luikart said. "It's to our advantage by a long shot to have her doing that. … With her history and her contacts up there, it's good for her to do that."
He hoped to see board members join Fiorentino in the effort in the future, to show unity and lend credence to her positions.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.