Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Education

Pasco superintendent backs down in textbook dustup

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino has reversed course in the district's trouble-plagued effort to pick new social studies textbooks.

She has decided to stick with the selection committee's recommendation, after initially overruling its choice in favor of a different title.

Her abrupt about-face, just days after saying the committee process was flawed, left School Board members more convinced than ever that they had made the right choice in tabling the social studies materials purchases to get more information.

"I don't understand yet why they made the decision to overturn the committee's recommendation, especially when they didn't have correct information," board chairwoman Joanne Hurley said, also criticizing the staff's lack of preparation in presenting the details to the board last week. "It was not well thought out and not well done."

To start the process, a committee of several teachers and district staff spent months reviewing titles available for adoption. At the elementary level, the committee reached a consensus in support of a book by publisher TCI.

On the advice of her senior staff, though, Fiorentino had stood ready to ask the School Board to approve an elementary school textbook by publisher McGraw-Hill. The TCI textbook relied too heavily on technology and did not clearly identify the standards being taught in each lesson, she said.

Committee members complained to the board about being overridden by the superintendent. With criticism mounting, Fiorentino withdrew the item from consideration at last week's School Board meeting, pending additional review.

She moved ahead with recommending middle and high school titles, though, only to hear added questions from the School Board about why the books up for consideration were changed midway through the process.

Curriculum and instruction director Vanessa Hilton told the board at the time that changes to state rules and procedures were to blame. Pressed for further details, Hilton said she did not have her materials available and could not answer.

The board tabled that purchase as well.

At first, Fiorentino had planned to reconvene the elementary-level committee to explain her thoughts and to let the members then vote on which book the board should consider. Before that meeting every happened, though, she got new information from other district staff that the criticisms of TCI's book were not valid.

District spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli sent a memo to the committee canceling the meeting and saying that Fiorentino would support its original choice.

"We have received additional clarification regarding the concerns that were brought to our attention by committee members," Romagnoli wrote. "In light of this information, we believe the TCI product will meet the needs of our students and teachers, while respecting the committee process."

A closer look at what happened with the secondary level titles further showed that Hilton's explanation to the board was incorrect. The swapped titles were a result of locally raised observations that one of the top three choices was not feasible for several high schools, the document stated, and had nothing to do with state regulations.

"I'm so glad that the board tabled both of them," Hurley said.

Problems with process

Board member Allen Altman said he was glad to know the superintendent had returned to following district procedure for textbook selection. He was displeased with the twists and turns it took to arrive at that point.

"The board has always operated under the assumption, just as we did with the calendar committee, that when district employees and members of the community give their time and energy ... to make recommendations, those recommendations were the ones being brought forward to the board for action," Altman said.

After watching the superintendent ignore committee recommendations twice in recent weeks — with the textbooks and the 2012-13 calendar — perhaps the board needs to make its expectations more clear, he continued. "That is something the board is going to have to address in policy."

The district's textbook selection handbook detailed that once a selection committee recommends titles, the schools are able to purchase those books. The superintendent is not mentioned in that process.

Newer district policy, not reflected in the handbook, gives the School Board final authority over adopting instructional materials. That opened the door for the superintendent to weigh in, board attorney Dennis Alfonso said, as the board acts on superintendent recommendations.

Fiorentino acknowledged that the process could have been better.

"In retrospect, we should have waited to make a final recommendation until all of the details were available," she said. "At this point, I am confident that the materials selected by the committee are of high quality and will benefit children and teachers throughout our school system, which is the single most important fact in this conversation."

She planned to bolster district procedures to avoid a repeat of the past week's mess. That revision will include improved guidelines on how to deal with conflicts of interest during the selection process.

The issue became pertinent because McGraw-Hill's representative was dating assistant superintendent for elementary schools David Scanga, who had to recuse himself from the process.

Hurley said the entire situation highlights the importance of the School Board asking lots of questions before an item comes to the table and during deliberations.

"No matter what the superintendent's staff recommends," she said, "it's up to this board to do our homework."

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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