Running the Pasco school district, with its $1.1 billion budget and 9,300 employees, carries a lot of responsibility and power.
Yet in many ways, the superintendent's hands are tied.
The state sets the tax rate for the school districts. Plummeting property values have drained the tax base, while a march of mandates — from class size requirements to a new system of teacher evaluations — add to the Pasco school district's cost of doing business.
The balancing act in recent years has led to pay freezes, furloughs and layoffs. More students are packed into Advanced Placement courses. Some schools have scaled back their academic elective offerings.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino says she's tried to turn "obstacles into opportunities," leading the district through difficult times even when it meant making unpopular decisions.
"This is not the time you quit," said Fiorentino, who's seeking a third term in office. "If you're going to be a true leader, you lead through the troubled times."
Her main opponent in the Aug. 14 election, retired Florida secretary of state Kurt Browning, acknowledges the district's been dealt a tough hand in recent years. That doesn't excuse what he considers Fiorentino's poor management and leadership style, which he noted was highlighted in a climate survey of administrators that she herself commissioned.
"This district is a top-down district," Browning said. "My leadership style is 180 degrees different than the current superintendent's."
Issues are secondary
In Florida's supercharged education reform and accountability movement, plenty of big picture issues swirl through Pasco's public schools political debate. On many of these, Browning and Fiorentino agree.
Both call for expanded school choice options, if funding permits. Both want to see the state's teacher evaluation rules modified to place less emphasis on student test scores. Both back a Penny for Pasco extension and oppose creation of a district "inspirational messages" policy.
They're not in lockstep, of course. Browning is more enthusiastic about charter schools than is Fiorentino. Fiorentino does not support private school vouchers, while Browning remains open to the idea, so long as receiving schools are held accountable.
All these topics take a back seat to the subject of leadership in this race, though.
Browning attacks Fiorentino as someone who shuns collaborative decision making, disdains opposing points of view and doesn't fix persistent problems. These traits, he suggests, have created a district of mid-level leaders unwilling to lead, with morale tanking at all levels.
His favorite example is a Florida Association of District School Superintendents report that detailed many shortcomings in her style, as cited by her own management team. That report came out in 2011, and yet Fiorentino did not address the document for more than a year — and then simply to deny many of the findings and tell an upset School Board that she had already begun fixing a handful of listed criticisms.
By contrast, Browning noted, Pinellas superintendent John Stewart met with his board members days after he received a similar report to work out a joint method for improving his administration.
"She knows what the issues are," Browning contended, "but she hasn't done anything about them."
Fiorentino said she and her staff had concerns about the FADSS report from the start, contending it contained information that was simply wrong about meetings, numbers of employees in different departments and other facts. At the same time, she added, the leadership team did prioritize and begin to tackle many of the issues listed for improvement in the document, such as reducing positions and working more closely with the teachers union.
When she presented her detailed response to the School Board, members generally accepted her explanations without many challenges or questions.
Fiorentino further rejects the notion that she's an overbearing micromanager, citing for an example how she gives her key deputies wide discretion in important decisions such as principal selection and teacher allocations. She also said she continues to seek ways to improve areas that remain sore points, such as communication with staff and the community, even as she's attempted to make strides with more frequent meetings, explanatory letters and podcasts.
While proclaiming her qualifications, Fiorentino has also questioned Browning's fitness for the job. She has frequently said that, as a non-educator, Browning would have a steep learning curve to understand all the intricacies of curriculum and instruction, not to mention the state and federal rules, that guide a school system.
She also said the departments he has overseen — the Pasco elections office and the Florida Department of State — have had smaller budgets, fewer employees and less responsibilities than she has dealt with daily for the past eight years.
Browning "is not qualified for the job, and he's trying to get people to do dirty work for him to make me look bad," Fiorentino said, referring to a Browning campaign contributor coming to the School Board and accusing her of using coercion and intimidation to get staffers to support her. "I think it will backfire on him."
Watching from the outside, it's perhaps easier for Browning to lob bombs at Fiorentino, who still must deal with day-to-day management of the district.
He has the outsider status that allows him to tout his credentials as a respected administrator from his past duties, while saying he doesn't have access to all the details that would allow him to offer specific alternatives.
He then steps back and says, "This district has a culture that I think in some instances can be hostile. That is just not Kurt," referencing unnamed district employees whom he says inform him about issues within Fiorentino's administration.
Such insinuations leave Fiorentino defensive, asking for evidence of one person who she's penalized for not supporting her directives, wondering what districts don't have morale problems in light of the state's severe economic woes.
Still, a number of stories in recent months have bruised Fiorentino as she's tried to burnish her credentials: Her back and forth on social studies textbook adoption amid squabbling by selection committee members. Her continued support of Hudson Middle principal Terry Holback despite a year of ongoing complaints by teachers. Parent discontent at River Ridge High over not being informed about a student death threat.
Consider the recent troubles at Connerton Elementary School.
A group of disgruntled former employees and parents began complaining about principal Anna Falcone's leadership style, calling for her ouster. Fiorentino and assistant superintendent David Scanga looked into the concerns, interviewed several people at the school and determined that the school needed a culture change.
Fiorentino reassigned the assistant principal and offered easy transfers to teachers wanting out. But she retained Falcone over the objections by her detractors. She praised Falcone's academic stewardship (although the school's state grade has fallen, it remains among the top in the district), and said Falcone deserved more time to improve her leadership skills.
To Fiorentino, that was the right and fair way to handle the situation. To Browning, it provided more evidence of poor management.
"One-sixth of the teachers felt compelled to leave. … I would sit there going, why would one-sixth of the instructional staff at a school want to leave? Something has to be fixed," Browning said, noting that dissatisfaction at the school had been brewing for years. "A good, strong leader will deal with these issues a lot quicker and more decisively."
For his part, Browning says he would lead by surrounding himself with strong experts — no "yes men" — give them the authority to run their operations and hold them accountable for the results. Classroom teachers must feel similarly empowered, he added.
He says he'll step out in front of the issues, give clear instructions to the people he's put in charge, and trust them to get business done.
"I like Heather," Browning said. "I just don't think she's been leading. That's why we need change."
Fiorentino offered faint praise for Browning, saying he was an "excellent vote counter." She contrasted herself as a lifelong educator who understands classroom and policy alike.
"In every decision that has been made, it has been made for the children and the school system," Fiorentino said of her eight years. "You can't make people happy and do what's right all of the time."
The third candidate on the Aug. 14 ballot, Moon Lake handyman Ken Benson, has not involved himself much in this debate. He has called both Fiorentino and Browning "career politicians" and suggested that both have leadership flaws. Benson's platform focuses on returning prayer to public schools.
Only Republicans may vote in this race, as the primary winner faces write-in opposition on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.