Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Education

Pasco School Board criticizes removal of administrator

LAND O'LAKES — Ordinarily, the Pasco County School Board doesn't wade into the details of how the district administration runs specific academic programs.

But the superintendent's abrupt removal in late June of Response to Intervention supervisor Amelia Van Name Larson, a popular educator who held the post for three years, had board members prying into the specifics of that initiative on Tuesday.

Board members demanded to know why superintendent Heather Fiorentino had slated Van Name Larson for reassignment to a school assistant principal slot, and how the work she had been doing will be handled moving forward. They said they considered the effort to intervene in student learning and behavior problems before they get out of hand to be a crucial piece in the district's future success.

Taking out Van Name Larson, who subsequently resigned to become a national response to intervention consultant, did not appear to be the best answer, several board members said.

"In 51/2 years (as a School Board member) I have never had school-based administrators as unanimous and concerned about something and questioning" as Van Name Larson's removal, board member Allen Altman said. "Nobody I have heard from … thinks this is the right thing for our schools or our students."

Fiorentino said the district needed to move its RTI efforts more directly into the schools, and out of the central office. It had expanded into 50 of Pasco's 84 campuses over six years, she said, and it should be in all of them by now.

"Our model was centralized. This is not the model in other counties," student services director Lizette Alexander told the board. "When the state and USF folks who are a big piece of this looked at the data, their judgement was that we needed to decentralize."

Van Name Larson said in an interview that before she left the district, she advised leaders that it would be best to enhance the district-level RTI abilities to help individual schools, each of which has different needs. Departments must work together to achieve this goal for children, she said.

"There is recognition that the district office is not at all where it needs to be in helping the schools in sustaining the project," she said.

Fiorentino proposed to transfer Van Name Larson to an assistant principal post at either Sunray or Pasco elementary school to make the school a model RTI site.

"She chose to resign," Fiorentino said.

Board Chairwoman Joanne Hurley contended that Fiorentino's move amounted to a squeeze play on Van Name Larson for political reasons. Van Name Larson is close to former assistant superintendent Ray Gadd, whom Fiorentino did not renew four years ago and who is actively supporting superintendent primary challenger Kurt Browning.

"This is an extremely unpopular and in my view unwarranted decision," Hurley told Fiorentino. "To take somebody out of that role simply in the name of decentralization, I am voicing my deep concern at this."

Hurley acknowledged that the board has limited authority when it comes to specific personnel moves. It can only disapprove recommendations for "cause," such as not meeting job requirements. It has no flexibility when it comes to not appointing someone to a job, because that requires no action.

However, Hurley said, the board does hold the power of the purse.

"If there are budget savings for decentralization, I would like to know what they are," she said. "I am not in favor of budgeting for that position or implementation costs until I am comfortable this is a good decision."

She asked department directors for budget information relating to the changes. Board member Steve Luikart further requested more details about how the decentralized RTI system will be implemented, as well as proof that the state recommended it.

Special education department director Melissa Musselwhite told the board that her predecessor, Monica Verra, gave her the information. Verra left the district this year to take over the state division of exceptional student education.

"I want a copy of the plan that the state says we need to decentralize, whatever that means," Luikart said, adding that he also wanted to see the district's training and compliance plans.

The staff said it will report back to the board this month.

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.

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