LAND O'LAKES — Budget cuts loom as revenue sags. Employee morale is low as contract negotiations lag. Next year looks worse.
Two people want to lead the Pasco County school district through the choppy waters.
Incumbent Heather Fiorentino, a Republican, says she wants to build upon the successes that the district has seen over the past four years.
She points to the district's A rating by the state as evidence of academic success. She speaks of opening 15 new schools, generally on time and within budget. She notes that despite the poor economy, the district has avoided layoffs and protected classroom programs.
"Our district as a whole is so progressive and moving in the right direction," Fiorentino said.
Her challenger is first-time candidate Stephen Donaldson, a Democrat who teaches at Gulf High. With the school employees association behind him, Donaldson focuses his message on improving what he considers Fiorentino's shortcomings, suggesting he'd be a better leader.
He criticizes Fiorentino as non-collaborative, and says he would listen. He argues that Fiorentino's style has dampened morale, and contends his background as an Air Force major and small-business owner would help him find ways to clean things up.
"The more I'm around the inside of the system, the more I see that there needs to be change," Donaldson said.
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The role of superintendent is critical, experts say, because the person who leads the school system is responsible not only for children's education, but also their safety and welfare.
The superintendent also oversees purchasing, legal matters, employment and other complex issues associated with running a large business.
"You want to make sure you have somebody making the calls that you trust, who has the skills and the leadership abilities to make those decisions," said Dan Domenech, American Association of School Administrators executive director. "You want somebody who has exhibited some experience and expertise in running an organization of that size."
Partisans on both sides of this race argue their candidate is better suited to the job.
Donaldson backers say Fiorentino has made too many high-profile gaffes, suggesting she does not think issues through before taking action. For example, they note that the state overturned her directive that employees remain on call to work in hurricane shelters even when they're not on duty.
They also list such controversies as Fiorentino's effort to impose a dress code on teachers and her attempt to fire a teacher who tried to commit suicide.
Donaldson, they say, has the temperament and experience of a leader, even if he hasn't held all the government posts that Fiorentino has. They note he has more formal education than does Fiorentino, and suggest with a small learning curve he would be up to the task.
Fiorentino's supporters have not targeted Donaldson, who says he decided to run after finding it tough to crack into leadership positions at Gulf High.
Rather, they speak of the incumbent's strengths. They note that she has surrounded herself with strong people, including some who opposed her 2004 election, to move the district forward. They praise her effort to avoid layoffs, even as many other districts are shedding staffers.
They also point to her understanding of state and local government, saying that knowledge helps the district navigate the rules that come from Tallahassee. And they cite her willingness to learn from mistakes.
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The candidates see eye to eye on many of the issues.
Both have called for the state to further delay the implementation of the class-size amendment. Both have said they want to see school safety heightened. Both want to see additional vocational programs.
They support charter schools. They dislike unfunded mandates. They want to give raises.
They part ways there.
Donaldson insists that the district could pay for those raises if it would look deeper into how it spends. He suggests, for one, that the administration is bloated (it rates 10th in the state in cost per student).
He also calls for a reduction in "pet projects" such as end-of-semester exams at a time when the district cannot afford them.
"We need to trim the fat," he said.
Fiorentino counters that she and her staff, which she considers lean, have pored over the budget looking for ways to give employee raises. But she notes that the economy is in a tailspin.
"There's no money right now," she said.
Fiorentino acknowledges that conflict over negotiations has weakened morale.
She also admitted to having made some tactical errors in implementing some reforms she considered necessary to get all district educators using the same vocabulary and best practices. Yet Fiorentino focused on the fact that she heard the complaints and changed things.
But Donaldson has pounced on the admissions, saying Fiorentino can't effectively lead because she's a poor communicator.
"We have a bureaucracy here that is too thick, too deep," he said. "We have to be more responsive."
He pledged to involve all stakeholders in the front end of decisionmaking, saying that keeping morale up is easier if communication is transparent. He contended his military leadership gave him the experience to better run the operation.
Fiorentino counters that the employees association has made it tough to bargain when it is running so hard against her.
Both candidates plan to keep knocking on doors right up to the Nov. 4 vote.
Early voting begins today and ends Nov. 1.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.