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Hernando school superintendent calls board's work exemplary

BROOKSVILLE — A few days before the Fourth of July, superintendent Bryan Blavatt put on an early fireworks show of his own.

At the end of a nearly three-hour special School Board meeting fraught with tough personnel and budget-cutting decisions, Blavatt told board members they were "micromanaging" their chief executive. He questioned if he was a good fit for the district and called the board the "most dysfunctional, nonproductive, counterproductive group of individuals I've ever seen in 40 years."

Back off and let me do my job or fire me, he said.

The dynamic has improved by leaps and bounds, Blavatt says now.

Recalling his harsh words, Blavatt told his bosses at the end of their Nov. 15 meeting that board operations have been "exemplary."

"I want to thank each and every board member for your dedication and willingness to work together," Blavatt said. "I feel like we're making great strides, and I feel better and better at each meeting."

The comments were meant to give credit where credit is due, Blavatt told the Times. He said his comments in July were "dead on."

"But my feeling is that, even with tough things to handle and look at, the board has really been more focused and is functioning well," he said. "The meetings have gone smoother, discussion has been more directed, and those people who had divergent point of views were able to express clearly why they disagreed."

He cited as examples the board's direction to help balance the tough budget and the decision to adjust magnet school admissions procedures.

In July, the board was still hamstrung by the lack of a fifth member. Gov. Rick Scott appointed Matt Foreman in September. The fifth vote in general helps, but having a sharp attorney who attended school in Hernando County has made a difference, Blavatt said.

Just as reaction from board members to Blavatt's comments in July was mixed, so is the feedback on his praise.

Board member Dianne Bonfield had been most vocal about how the dysfunctional comment offended her. She disagreed then, so she wasn't moved by his recent sentiment, she said.

"From my perspective, it means very little," Bonfield said. "I think the board works well together. If there is an issue, it's the superintendent keeping the board well informed about what's going on."

That's the same criticism Bonfield and board member James Yant noted in the spring on Blavatt's annual performance evaluation forms. Both said they still have those concerns, citing Blavatt's decision to cut bus service to day care centers without notifying the board. The issue is expected to be discussed at a workshop next month.

Yant wrote in Blavatt's evaluation that his inability to keep a poker face when displeased or frustrated is hampering his effectiveness. The comment about dysfunction was a lapse in professionalism, Yant said.

"I still feel nothing has changed since my evaluation," he said. "When you make comments like that, you can't take that back. It's always out there."

The dynamic was never as bad as Blavatt's July comments indicated, member John Sweeney said.

The superintendent was frustrated by the board's rejection of his proposals to reorganization the district's management structure, Sweeney noted.

"It's understandable where he was coming from," he said. "He could have handled it a different way, but I think he's made up for that."

Chairwoman Cynthia Moore, who now has a year of experience on the board, agreed with Blavatt that the dynamic has changed.

"I think we've done a turnaround," she said. "I think we're all working together as a team."

Foreman said his impressions of the board dynamic and Blavatt's performance are positive, especially considering the dire financial straits the district is facing.

"It's taken some tough decision-making that other (past) boards might not have had to deal with to the same degree," Foreman said. "For the most part, there's been a fantastic level of professionalism among these folks. It's very refreshing in government to see that."

Of Blavatt, Foreman said: "I like to let the guy do his job, and if I think the guy's not doing his job I'm going to tell him. At this point, I don't have any major complaints."

A veteran administrator new to Florida, Blavatt has made it clear in recent months that he, too, bears responsibility for any dysfunction. He renewed his vow to keep working on his communication with the board.

"I will say without hesitation, when someone has called and asked for information and materials, they've gotten it," he said. "But I'm open to suggestions."

Blavatt's contract, which ends in July 2013, pays him a base salary of $130,000, with annual increases given at the discretion of the board based on his performance and at least three other factors. Among them are "budget considerations," pay raises given to other 12-month administrative employees and increases in pay given by the Legislature to elected superintendents.

He has proposed a new evaluation system for himself that takes into account student performance data and other concrete markers. He has said he is willing to base some of his salary on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results and other benchmarks.

On Tuesday, however, Blavatt said he now doubts that will happen. If student scores go up, there is no money to pay him. If they go down, the board can still hold him accountable.

Improving student performance is one goal everyone agrees on, and the district is poised to make that happen, even with more mandates and less funding, Sweeney said.

"We're stressed out as a school district," Sweeney said. "We really do need to stick together, and I think we're moving in the right direction."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or Connect with him on Facebook by searching for Hernando Education Beat — Tampa Bay Times.

Hernando school superintendent calls board's work exemplary 11/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 29, 2011 8:04pm]
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