BROOKSVILLE — Signaling their desire for a new direction, Hernando County teachers this week voted out two-term Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Joe Vitalo in favor of a longtime teacher with previous experience leading the union.
Jo Ann Hartge, a sixth-grade science teacher at West Hernando Middle School, received 58 percent of the votes — 444 of the 766 cast.
Vitalo pulled in 322 votes, or roughly 42 percent.
About 30 percent of the membership did not cast ballots.
"I had no idea how it was going to go," Hartge said Friday. "I thought it was going to be close. I was surprised. I was nervous."
Hartge, 61, served two two-year terms as union president between 1996 and 2001, earning respect as a fiery advocate for teachers. A Rhode Island native, she has been with the Hernando school district for 26 years, including nine years at West Hernando. She earned national board certification — the pinnacle of the teaching profession — in 1999 and has maintained it since.
Hartge said she thought the organization needed a change.
"Our classrooms are so different; our challenges are so different," she said. "I just want to bring in a new perspective."
She said she will only serve one three-year term.
Hartge will spend her first days assessing the needs of the union and talking with people in the district, including Lori Romano, whom the School Board has chosen as the district's next superintendent.
"I hope to have a very collaborative working relationship with the new superintendent," Hartge said.
But she says, above all, she's "going to be advocating for public education."
Among her desires: more training, mentoring and professional development for teachers.
Vitalo, 50, held the position for six years and was trying for his third term. He was the union's first full-time president.
He said he worked to improve salaries, working conditions and resources for teachers.
During his tenure, teacher salaries in Hernando improved dramatically.
"I guess that wasn't important enough," he said.
Vitalo said he felt there were a variety of issues, some unfounded, that cost him the job, including accusations that he was too cozy with the administration and that he was using the position to take a job with the state.
He adamantly denied those claims.
Vitalo said he will return to the classroom or seek other positions for which he is qualified.
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.