Saturday, May 26, 2018
Education

Pasco school employees feared retaliation during campaign, report finds

LAND O'LAKES — Fear of retribution for not supporting Heather Fiorentino's re-election campaign cast a long shadow over the Pasco County school district this year, a newly released report states.

The concerns were so great that many administrators refused to publicly tell their stories of coercion by supervisors even after Fiorentino lost her bid for a third term as superintendent of schools, wrote Tampa lawyer Tom Gonzalez, whom the Pasco School Board hired to investigate complaints. That limited his findings, Gonzalez wrote, but he still drew some observations from his interviews.

"No evidence was adduced that showed the superintendent's personal involvement," Gonzalez wrote in his eight-page report, which board members received on Tuesday. "But there is evidence that several district-level administrators engaged in political activities in support of the superintendent, and these efforts created an impression that support of the superintendent was expected and that a failure to give it could result in repercussions."

Fiorentino called the investigation a "witch hunt" and said neither she nor her supporters did anything wrong.

But board member Joanne Hurley, who called for the review, said the report validated the many complaints that she and colleagues heard.

"It now gives the new superintendent something that he can use to discuss the climate and culture of our district in coming years. Clearly there are needed changes," Hurley said.

Among other things, the report describes two administrators saying they were called into district offices over their response — or lack of response — to requests to help with Fiorentino's campaign.

A supervisor told Crews Lake principal Chris Christoff that "they did not want him to be seen as non-supportive of the Superintendent," the report said. Assistant principal David Huyck, who sent a text message saying he preferred to stay out of the campaign "at my own peril," was called in to explain what he meant, the report said.

Both men were summoned to meetings by assistant superintendent Tina Tiede and Beth Brown, executive director of secondary schools. Brown told Gonzalez that she "apologized to Christoff for her actions," which she termed a "rookie mistake."

Tiede told Gonzalez that she was not involved politically, and simply was trying to protect Christoff and Huyck from being seen as against Fiorentino's reelection.

"Ms. Tiede's expression of concern that the two administrators ... not be seen as being opposed to the reelection clearly fostered the feeling that someone would make that observation and there would some negative consequence from it," Gonzalez wrote.

Tiede told the Times "this is one of those unfortunate times when you strive to do the right thing but it gets interpreted in another manner."

• • •

The School Board hired Gonzalez after Barbara Munz, a retired principal, complained that some former colleagues had told her of bosses pressuring them to support Fiorentino with contributions or volunteer work. She cited a text message from Summer Robertson, then district communication director, inviting administrators to a fundraiser for Fiorentino.

Buffy Simon, a former assistant principal, came forth soon after with similar allegations. Gonzalez spent a fair portion of the report discussing Robertson's text message.

Robertson sent the text message during a workday, though she was taking a personal day. Also, the text message was sent to private rather than district phone numbers, and it did not directly solicit support. It gave instructions if people "wish" to send a donation.

At least two administrators told Gonzalez they did not provide their numbers to the campaign or suggest they were interested in supporting it. Fiorentino said she instructed the team to use only contacts they had available to them personally, and not to use any district records.

Robertson declined to comment.

Gonzalez also reported that assistant superintendent John Mann confirmed he and others reviewed lists of administrators "for the purpose of assigning persons to contact those administrators on behalf of the campaign." Those efforts took place away from the district and not during work hours. Still, they "contributed to the perception that others would be expected to participate as well," Gonzalez wrote.

Superintendent Kurt Browning said he did not see any "smoking gun" of wrongdoing within the report that would lead him to major staffing changes. Rather, he said, it simply highlighted the fear factor within the district culture.

"I have said all along that one of the things I want to do is change the culture of the school district," Browning said.

• • •

Hurley raised doubts that Fiorentino was blameless in the scenarios that Gonzalez described.

"Leadership comes from the top," Hurley said. "Clearly, the kinds of things that went on couldn't have happened without implicit approval. That's what is going to change now."

Fiorentino was not surprised to see the report support her repeated statements that she did not personally pressure anyone to back her reelection effort. She vehemently rejected Hurley's contention that she gave a wink and a nod to others putting the squeeze on their employees.

"Anyone who was actually involved in my campaign and not on the other side would tell you that isn't true," Fiorentino said. "Mrs. Hurley never supported me. ... It did not happen like that. I definitely took politics out of the school district, and I hope they stay out. But with this report the way it is written, it makes me worry."

The School Board will discuss the report Dec. 4. The board had to investigate the allegations, vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley said. But now it's done, she said, and the board has adequate policies in place to deal with future similar complaints.

"Let's get back to the business at hand, which is education," she said. "The election is over."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614.

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