NEW PORT RICHEY — They've spent much of their campaign so far at the grassroots level, working to improve name recognition with signs and door-to-door canvassing.
On Tuesday, Pasco superintendent of schools candidates Heather Fiorentino and Stephen Donaldson finally faced off in a 45-minute debate about the issues.
Fiorentino, the Republican incumbent, sought to capitalize upon the successes of her four-year term. She spoke about the district's increasing academic performance, its improved methods of communicating with parents and its first-ever strategic plan for the future.
"We have a strong cornerstone and I'd like to continue to build upon that," she said.
Challenger Donaldson, meanwhile, took aim at some of what he considered Fiorentino's failures and offered himself as a different type of leader.
"Under my administration, the way to have a minute with the superintendent is going to be easy," said Donaldson, a Democrat, suggesting Fiorentino's is not accessible enough.
On several issues, the candidates essentially agreed.
Both saw no way to fully implement the class-size amendment at the classroom level with the existing economy, for instance. Both also found the state and federal governments to have placed too many unfunded mandates on local schools, limiting local control. And they expressed support for charter schools, so long as the district maintains a level of oversight over them.
But they also found much room for disagreement.
One key area centered on employee morale.
Fiorentino acknowledged that morale is poor, and said she needed to do more to improve communications with the district's employees. But she contended that the economy has more to do with the problems than her leadership, and added that the employees union has also made it hard to work together.
"It is much easier when you have money and can give raises," Fiorentino said, calling the district a "team" that must come together for the good of the students.
Donaldson questioned Fiorentino's commitment to the team, though, saying a true team leader would inspire and collaborate to solve problems.
"It's not hard to raise morale," he said. "But you have to make communication transparent, you have to make it open and you have to make it two-way."
The two also sparred over a teacher training program called Learning Focused Strategies, which many teachers hate. The district has spent more than $4-million implementing it.
"LFS will become a teacher option the day I take office," said Donaldson, who teaches social studies at Gulf High. "As a teacher, a very passionate teacher, I don't need that kind of structure in order to educate my kids."
Maybe not, Fiorentino countered, but the district has many new teachers, several of whom did not attend a college of education to learn things such as classroom management and best teaching practices.
Learning Focused Strategies gave the district a "common vocabulary" for teaching children, using research-tested strategies that work, she said. The district had to put something in place because of federal guidelines, whether it was LFS or some other program, she added.
"It is a good program," she said, though admitting that its implementation was "a mess."
Fiorentino insisted that the district has no money for raises or annual step increases, while Donaldson stated "the money is there" if priorities are reset.
Donaldson said that schools could be safer, and said he would put metal detectors at every door if the money were available. Fiorentino talked about all the district efforts to improve school safety, but also agreed that more can be done.
The candidates are scheduled to debate again on Oct. 20 in Dade City. The election is Nov. 4.
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.