BROOKSVILLE — One hundred seventeen.
That's the combined years of experience in Florida schools of the five finalists vying to become Hernando County's next superintendent of schools.
That's the number of years they've spent in district administration.
That's the sum of their experience serving in any superintendent position — and that came in an interim capacity.
While remarkably qualified in many respects, the group of finalists differs from those in most of the district's previous superintendent searches in one significant way:
They've spent precious little time in superintendent positions.
The candidates hail from across Florida, bringing strong backgrounds in a state that's in the midst of a massive transition in its public schools.
They're a competitive bunch.
After a public meet-and-greet Tuesday evening, the School Board is slated to interview the five hopefuls Wednesday and Thursday.
The board is scheduled to select its pick for the job, which will pay between $100,000 and $130,000 a year, on March 19.
The official start date for the new superintendent, who will replace the retiring Bryan Blavatt, is July 1.
Sonya Jackson is the only one of the finalists who has held the top job before.
For about six months, Jackson served as Hernando's interim superintendent.
Can she do the job on a permanent basis? She thinks so.
"It worked well," said Jackson, now the assistant superintendent of student support services. "We didn't have any major hiccups. Everything ran smoothly."
Jackson is in the running for the superintendent's position for the third time.
Most recently, she tried in 2009, when Blavatt was selected.
At that time, none of five School Board members ranked her first among the finalists. Only former board member James Yant listed her in his top three.
But there are three new members on the board now. And Jackson says she's a better, more experienced candidate.
With nine years in the district, and three as assistant superintendent, she says her experiences run the spectrum, from curriculum to plant operations to maintenance and transportation.
"You name it, I've done it," she said.
Among her greatest achievements, she says: implementing Hernando's eSchool.
"We saw where dollars were being given to Florida Virtual," she said. "Why not recoup some of those dollars ourselves instead of spending those dollars?"
School Board members had previously questioned her ability to handle the rough-and-tumble political nature of the superintendent's seat. Jackson dismissed that, saying people shouldn't confuse meekness for weakness.
Jackson has received four recommendation letters from current or former superintendents with whom she has worked, including Blavatt and former Hernando superintendent Wendy Tellone.
Tellone lauded her breadth of knowledge within the school system and the leadership she has provided. She also commended her gift of "maintaining a calm and levelheaded manner" regardless of the situation.
Blavatt said he has seen change in her during his three-year tenure.
"I have witnessed a real growth in Sonya's skill in working with staff, board members, community leaders and stakeholders," he wrote.
He said she is "eminently qualified" to lead the district.
Kenneth D. Pritz
Ken Pritz has an admission to make about his previous attempts to become Hernando's superintendent.
"I don't know that I was ready the first two times," he said. "I didn't know curriculum like I needed to know curriculum to be leader of the school district."
He also says: "Both times, I don't think that I had a vision."
Now, Pritz paints himself as a drastically changed man.
The four years he spent turning around Hernando High School, taking it from a "D" school to a "B" school.
He calls it his "on the front lines" experience.
Pritz says he learned to work closely with the Florida Department of Education — the process, the research, the latest requirements involved in turning around a school.
That's invaluable knowledge in his current job as assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, he said. He said it gave him the ability to "talk the language" and understand the dramatic changes taking place in Florida schools with the implementation of Common Core standards and end-of-course exams.
"It's not just a book knowledge — it's an actual real-life knowledge," Pritz said.
One other major change, he said: He now offers a clear vision.
In recent years, he said, the district's strategic plan has basically just sat on a shelf.
He wants to see a concerted effort to tie the plan in with individual school plans. He wants to focus on research-based best practices to improve schools academically.
"You don't just throw out generic goals," Pritz said. They must be measurable.
One caveat in Pritz's application is that he's in the Deferred Retirement Option Program.
So unless he opts out — which he says he can do — he would be set to retire after holding the superintendent's position for less than three years.
That would make him the third superintendent in a row to hold the job for three years or less.
But Pritz says he would be willing to exit the program, forfeiting the money that comes with staying in it.
"If I was given this opportunity, and in 21/2 years if the board and I are in good standing and we're still working well together, then I'm willing to do that," he said.
Pritz said his proven track record in a wide range of jobs sets him apart from other finalists.
"I've worked with every area of this district; there isn't anything I haven't done," he said. "Other than being superintendent."
Rebecca 'Becky' Fleck
Something interesting happened when Rebecca Fleck was named assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in Highlands County in 2007:
She never stopped doing her old job.
For more than five years, Fleck has not only spearheaded the district's curriculum efforts, but also managed information services.
"I work a lot of hours," she chuckled.
In pulling double duty, she is saving the district roughly $85,000 a year, said Andy Tuck, chairman of the Highlands County School Board.
He didn't mince words in giving her his highest recommendation.
"Rebecca is the hardest-working person in our school district," Tuck said. "She is able to multi-task and does a damn good job of it. I can't say enough good about her.
"If I were on the School Board of Hernando County, she'd be hired already."
Tuck said Fleck has masterfully balanced both jobs, championing the district's technology program. The district now has roughly one computer for every two students, which is important, he said, with the growing importance of computerized testing and electronic textbooks.
Fleck has been in the Highlands district for 31 years.
She recently ran for the county's elected superintendent position, losing to the incumbent, Wally Cox.
No one seems to have anything bad to say about her. Even Cox wrote a letter of reference.
The superintendent gave her excellent marks in all areas, commending her "great" performance.
Said former superintendent Richard Farmer: "Ms. Fleck is a no-nonsense person, tells it like she perceives things, a tireless, strongly motivated person with no hidden agendas."
Fleck said she has only applied to be superintendent in Hernando County, calling it a "perfect match."
She likes the size of the county and its proximity to her parents in Highlands.
She also said she really likes what the school district has in place — chiefly, the strategic plan.
She appreciates the specific goals laid out in its pages and the fact that it includes ways to measure those goals.
Fleck says it's important to start working on the goals in the strategic plan.
"Hernando County has got a lot of great things going for them," she said. "I very much want to come into (the county) and build on those wonderful things that they have happening."
During her years in Highlands, she has worn a lot of different hats and led many initiatives, including the development of Highlands' International Baccalaureate program and its vocational career academy.
Now, Fleck said, she's ready to lead a district.
"I have the ambition," she said.
Diana Greene boasts a long history in the Marion County school district, complete with strong curriculum credentials and a record of helping struggling schools and students.
"I'm very proud that we've been able to truly overcome some things and help kids graduate from high school," she said.
A former deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction and director of staff development, Greene led a district team that helped turn around low-performing schools, with each one improving at least one letter grade. She also led an initiative to help increase the county's high school graduation rate, which is now at 86 percent, roughly 6 percentage points higher than the state average.
She has helped increase the minority graduation rate, decrease the dropout rate to less than 1 percent and help lower the percentage of third-graders who have to be held back.
She also is intimately familiar with many of the big educational changes coming to Florida school districts. She helped develop the strategic plan to implement Common Core standards.
Despite those accomplishments, Greene had mixed support in her failed bid to become Marion's elected superintendent in November. Since the election, she has served as an elementary school principal.
During the campaign, the Marion Education Association decided to support her Republican opponent, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.
Ron Crawford, chairman of the Marion County School Board, said Greene is quite proficient in curriculum, but doesn't have as strong a background in finance.
"She needs a finance director that doesn't have any fear of walking into her office and saying 'no,' " Crawford said.
Still, he said, Greene has "done a very good job for us."
While he didn't support her recent bid for superintendent, he said he would have been "more than happy to work with her."
Greene said she felt comfortable dealing with district finances.
"Well, to be very blunt," she said, "I'm ready to be superintendent.
"I've been an educator all my life. It's what I know and what I do best."
She said she is ready to provide leadership in Hernando, developing relationships with the community and the School Board.
Other administrators lauded Greene's achievements, her inquisitive mind, her ability to communicate and her professionalism.
"Dr. Greene has the skill, ability and experience for a superintendent of schools," Marion School Board member Bobby James wrote in a recommendation letter. "She has the talent to perform at an exceptionally high level."
Pam Stewart, the former interim Florida commissioner of education, had high praise from their time working together as administrators, saying Greene's "work ethic and motivation is unsurpassed. She has never seen a task that was too large or overwhelming."
Lori Romano arguably has the most to prove during this week's visit to Hernando County.
Of the five finalists, she is the only one who wasn't recommended by the district's review committee. She became a finalist only after School Board member John Sweeney said he wanted to interview her in person. No other board member expressed a strong desire for an interview.
She brings the most different background of all the candidates. Currently director of adult, community, secondary and virtual education programs for Martin County public schools, Romano spent nine years working with the Florida Department of Education.
She said her experience at the state, district and school levels would help her build meaningful relationships that would translate into successful programs.
"I am genuinely excited about the prospect of serving as the next superintendent of schools in Hernando County," she said in a brief email to the Times.
In a statement, Martin County school superintendent Laurie Gaylord said, "Dr. Romano is a valued member of our instructional team."
Gaylord said the Hernando superintendent's job would be a great opportunity for Romano.
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.