Sunday, February 18, 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.

Comments
Hillsborough rethinks its strategy for struggling schools

Hillsborough rethinks its strategy for struggling schools

TAMPA — "Elevate," a Hillsborough County School District initiative that was to focus on seven troubled schools and use them as models for dozens more, is becoming but a memory as the district seeks instead to support all schools equally."We’re more ...
Published: 02/17/18
Plant High students commemorate Parkland victims with sidewalk messages

Plant High students commemorate Parkland victims with sidewalk messages

TAMPA — Students at Plant High School honored the victims of the Parkland school shooting with a series of sidewalk chalk messages.The chalk art carried a series of messages such as "How many times?" and "Do something. Protect us." according to a Fac...
Published: 02/16/18
At public schools in Tampa Bay, a day to mourn, assess and reinforce

At public schools in Tampa Bay, a day to mourn, assess and reinforce

While fielding calls from anxious parents after the Broward County high school shooting that claimed 17 lives, school officials in the Tampa Bay area took a close look Thursday at what they are doing to keep students safe.There are gates and locks an...
Published: 02/15/18
Joe Henderson: April Griffin won’t run again for school board. She says she means it this time.

Joe Henderson: April Griffin won’t run again for school board. She says she means it this time.

Assuming April Griffin follows through on her decision not to seek re-election to the Hillsborough County School Board, well, meetings just won’t be the same. Chances are they’ll just be filled with boring reports, proclamations and routine business....
Published: 02/15/18
‘I don’t get paid for teaching,’ says Pinellas teacher accused of inappropriate acts. Now he’s gone

‘I don’t get paid for teaching,’ says Pinellas teacher accused of inappropriate acts. Now he’s gone

A St. Petersburg High teacher has retired in the middle of the school year after students said he called them "baby," "babe," "missy," "honey," "sweetie," "little girl" and ended one girl’s name with "-licious."The Pinellas County school district fou...
Published: 02/15/18
Interim principal says teamwork will lift long-struggling Moton Elementary

Interim principal says teamwork will lift long-struggling Moton Elementary

BROOKSVILLE — Less than a month after taking over as interim principal at long-struggling Moton Elementary School, Brent Gaustad says teamwork by educators across the district has things looking up.Behavior has improved, he said, and innovative proce...
Published: 02/15/18
17 dead, 15 wounded, former student in custody after Broward school shooting

17 dead, 15 wounded, former student in custody after Broward school shooting

PARKLAND — An American nightmare unfolded Wednesday afternoon at a South Florida high school after police say an expelled teenager returned to campus and opened fire with an assault rifle, killing 17 and wounding 15 more in the worst school shooting ...
Published: 02/14/18
Teachers take tests too. And when they cheat, Hillsborough has a knack for catching them

Teachers take tests too. And when they cheat, Hillsborough has a knack for catching them

TAMPA — Claudette Wilson and Annella Fender are sisters from Jamaica who did everything together.They both taught at Dowdell Middle School — one English, the other reading. They played tennis on Saturdays. After their match, they would work on their ...
Published: 02/14/18
No raise this year for USF president Genshaft; pay and benefits to remain at $925,000

No raise this year for USF president Genshaft; pay and benefits to remain at $925,000

TAMPA — The University of South Florida System’s long-serving leader will again stand to make about $925,000 in pay and deferred compensation under her proposed contract renewal.If approved, President Judy Genshaft’s contract will provide for about $...
Published: 02/14/18

Pasco School Board: Principals should alert families of potentially controversial books

Recently adopted law that gives parents and other residents more opportunities to review and challenge school instructional materials has sparked the Pasco County School Board to take a closer look at how it deals with such situations.The board last ...
Published: 02/14/18