LAND O'LAKES — Having protested and picketed in the School Board room, members of the United School Employees of Pasco next plan to take their message of discontent into the community.
On Saturday, the workers will fan across the county, visiting the homes of "fellow union members" in search of support as they negotiate for better workplace conditions and raises. They'll also push their message of "change," which in this case means in the superintendent's office.
"It's an effort to move the agenda we think is appropriate," USEP negotiator Jim Ciadella said of the Walkin' to Win campaign.
The organization is backing Democrat Stephen Donaldson, a USEP member and Gulf High social studies teacher, over Republican Heather Fiorentino, a former classroom teacher and state lawmaker who has held the job for the past four years. In recent months, members have blasted Fiorentino for her leadership style, attacking her decisions on a broad range of issues including teacher training, salary freezes and administrative spending.
"It could be better," USEP president Lynne Webb said of the district's leadership. "I think the citizens, the teachers, the school-related personnel and certainly the students deserve the best, not adequate."
Fiorentino expressed no surprise at the union's plans to campaign for her opponent, saying it worked against her in 2004 as well, when she challenged Chuck Rushe in the GOP primary.
"I know they got my opponent (Donaldson) to run against me," said Fiorentino, who in the past noted that Donaldson appeared on the USEP float at the Chasco Fiesta parade even before the group officially endorsed him. "That's probably why they're going door to door."
Donaldson has focused much of his campaign on getting out the school employees' votes, fashioning big chunks of his message to their interests. He's called for a more collaborative decisionmaking process than the one Fiorentino employs, suggesting the incumbent has not listened to employee input when looking into issues such as the district budget.
"We've got to take an honest look at processes to find ways to save money," he said. "If we can't do that, we're going to continue to have this house divided between the majority of teachers and the majority of school-related personnel, and the administration. I don't see the teamwork. I'm a builder of teamwork."
He has talked about changing things such as the way assistant principals are selected and possibly eliminating the Learning Focused Strategies staff development initiative that many teachers have hotly criticized as a waste of $5-million.
The association has responded in kind, its political action wing donating money to his campaign and many of its members contributing individually. The USEP also got its sister organizations in other districts, including Hillsborough, Martin, Manatee, Collier and Monroe, to donate up to $500 each to Donaldson's effort.
Other noneducation unions, including the International Union of Operating Engineers and the West Central Florida Federation of Labor, also have given to his campaign, which still lags behind Fiorentino in the race for cash. (Fiorentino has raised about $45,611 in monetary donations, while Donaldson has collected about $29,725.)
Webb explained that the USEP is pulling out the stops for Donaldson because members need someone at the top who treats them as professionals and who runs the district as a professional.
She suggested that the district began strategic planning under Fiorentino's watch at the insistence of retiring School Board member Marge Whaley, not because Fiorentino wanted it. She labeled Fiorentino's programs to improve communication, such as a phone calling system to alert parents to things happening in the schools, a "one-way effort," saying the superintendent's "whole open-door policy is an illusion."
Webb also criticized Fiorentino's leadership style of charging in and then apologizing about mistakes later, listing for example her effort to force a dress code upon employees against even the School Board's intent.
"I do think the budget is the ultimate potential crisis, but I also know that in the past our district has dealt with severe budget cuts and severe crises, and we have been able to get through them with careful planning and collaboration," Webb said. "I have not seen that happening" under Fiorentino.
Fiorentino said that regardless of the USEP's attempts to oust her, she wanted to work with the group. She figured that the conversation between them will improve if she wins re-election, when the union is not trying to put someone else in the superintendent's chair.
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.