LAND O'LAKES — Pasco School Board member Steve Luikart is frustrated. The complaints are mounting at Hudson Middle School, he said, and the administration isn't doing enough.
Luikart, whose district includes the school, pressed superintendent Heather Fiorentino and her top staff for answers about dozens of photos he and other board members received in the past week from people associated with the school. Those photos showed the school in disarray, with flaking paint and graffiti on walls, piles of desks outside the school and a stack of whiteboards that have sat outside for more than two years. A new mountain of mulch has replaced last year's heap, which sat there so long that plants began growing out of it.
One of the people sending the photos called the campus "Hudson Middle dump."
Fiorentino told Luikart that if he wanted staff to provide detailed answers to his questions, he should have alerted them to his concerns earlier.
"These are items that you need to be sending to staff as soon as possible," she told him at the School Board meeting Tuesday evening. "I could have had answers for you tonight."
She added that she had been working with the United School Employees of Pasco and staff on "other issues" at the school.
Luikart remained dissatisfied, saying that the administration has known for months about troubles at the school — including many complaints about principal Terry Holback's leadership style — yet has done little to repair them. Meanwhile, he said Wednesday, he has been getting calls from school employees saying they are so stressed out that they are seeking medical help.
"I just don't think the lady needs to be there," he said, referring to Holback. "I'm still going to try to intervene on that one."
Not everyone feels that way.
Lydia Kruk, the school's social worker, called the Times to praise Holback and suggest that the teachers simply don't want to be pressed to do the hard work that state and federal mandates require of every school.
"She has been one of the best principals I have worked for," Kruk said.
She lauded Holback for her fairness, her willingness to listen and her respectfulness to others as professionals.
"I have seen staff undermine her," Kruk said. "All she wants to do is make this a good school, and the teachers don't want to work that hard."
So far, Fiorentino has stood by Holback, assigning her a mentor to improve her skills. In an anonymous climate survey conducted by USEP in May, a vast majority of the school faculty stated that Holback had smashed employee morale and treated teachers unprofessionally since taking the reins of the school in mid 2010.
"I am afraid I will be called in to the office to answer for a problem I have no idea exists," one teacher wrote. "I am afraid of making a mistake that will cost me my job because I didn't 'do it right' even though I don't know what I did wrong. ... Every day I consider where to move so I can get a new teaching position, but then I am afraid to try for fear of what would be said about me by the principal. It seems like she just can't stand us."
Holback, in her first job as principal, took the survey to heart. She told the Times in July that, "Clearly I am coming up short. I recognize that and will work harder and do more because that's what I need to do."
Fiorentino visited the school recently to hear more about what's happening there. She arrived after work hours, though, so few teachers were present.
Kurt Browning, who defeated Fiorentino in the August primary election, said he was concerned that the situation has been allowed to fester for too long.
As a result, what might have been resolved internally with quick action blew up into something that the entire community knows about, he said. Now if leaders decide the best move might be to relocate Holback to another school to give her a fresh start, he said, people at those schools might be more resistant to accepting her knowing the full extent of the complaints at Hudson.
Such problems must be dealt with quickly to avoid tainting employees, schools and the system, he said. They need not to distract from the main objective of having everyone focus on improving teaching and learning for students, Browning said.
He also stressed that if he determined that Holback, or any other employee, was not performing well, he would support second chances but not transfer them simply to get them out of harm's way.
"The history has been if you can't cut it at a school, you get sent to the district office. That's not going to happen," he said. "If we've got a nonperformer, then we've got to hire someone to perform. I am not going to necessarily tolerate nonperformers on the school district payroll."
Other School Board members also have been keeping tabs on the Hudson Middle situation. Chairwoman Joanne Hurley also asked questions Tuesday about the photos they received. But for the most part they've let Luikart do the agitating, declining to comment on the specifics and waiting to see what Fiorentino, or Browning, decides to do.
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.