DADE CITY — When she needed a new principal for Centennial Elementary, Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino wanted a strong, known leader to keep the school moving forward.
Cindy Harper had retired two years earlier, but she says Fiorentino convinced her to return.
But now, before the school year has even begun, Fiorentino has told Harper that her days at Centennial are numbered.
"I've been told that I would not be renewed the next school year," Harper said. "I'm hoping she'll change her mind. I like being here."
Fiorentino said a change of heart isn't likely. Harper — whom Fiorentino called an "excellent" principal — has a one-year deal.
"One thing I want to be is fair and consistent," she explained.
Several east Pasco residents questioned Fiorentino's even-handedness in her treatment of rehired retirees over the summer, when she refused to reappoint Pasco High assistant principal Robin Futch while keeping Harper on the job.
Futch, who had retired and begun collecting a pension before returning to Pasco High, was principal Pat Reedy's choice for the post. She even had agreed to take a pay cut to remain at the school where she had been for decades.
Fiorentino noted that she had not renewed the contracts of more than 60 teachers who wanted to extend their employment past their deadline in the state's deferred retirement program. Futch should not get special treatment, she said.
When some people then wanted to know how Harper's situation differed, the administration offered two key facts: Harper had retired in 2007 without participating in the deferred retirement program, and she had not collected anything from her state pension.
Harper would remain.
But soon after the School Board's June 16 meeting, where the board considered the administrative reappointments, Fiorentino took a closer look at the scenario. And, she said, she decided that Harper needed to be treated as all other retirees.
Besides, she added, what message does it send to younger educators seeking to become principals if the district simply rehires retired leaders?
She sent assistant superintendent David Scanga to let Harper know, so there wouldn't be any confusion moving forward.
Harper, who had been principal at Sanders, Richey, Wesley Chapel and Moon Lake elementary schools over the years, said she was disappointed with the message, and at a loss to explain why the superintendent would recruit her and then not keep her. She's more than willing to stick around: "I love it here."
Board members, most of whom did not support forcing out Futch, said they were not clear why Fiorentino would want to limit Harper to one year.
"I think continuity is good for a school, as long as progress and excellence in academics are occurring," board member Kathryn Starkey said.
Board member Allen Altman said the dearth of assistant principal applicants in the district suggests that many employees are shaken by Fiorentino's decisions not to keep Futch, former assistant superintendent Ray Gadd and former communication director Maureen Moore.
Futch and Moore have found new jobs in public education. Gadd is pursuing his options.
"My fear when the superintendent made her (administrative) changes and said she was going in a 'new direction' was that our qualified people with leadership abilities would look at these changes that were made and be in fear of losing their positions and not move into something where job performance has no bearing on their employment," Altman said.
The decision not to keep Harper is simply another iteration of the same direction, he suggested. "Unfortunately, what we're seeing in the lack of applications for the (assistant principal) positions is that exact fear expressed."
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.