BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County is in the midst of a search for its next superintendent.
Former superintendent Wayne Alexander was shown the door by the School Board in September, a year before the end of his contract. Board members felt he'd been less than forthright about his search for a new job and said they'd lost faith in his ability to lead the district.
Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, is also serving as chairman of the nine-member search committee that will recommend a short list of candidates to the board. The committee met last week for the first time, narrowing the initial batch of 29 applicants to 15. The committee meets again Wednesday.
Times staff writer Tony Marrero sat down with Vitalo this week.
Marrero: You had strong words for the search committee last week about the quality of the candidate that the Hernando school district deserves. You said you're tired of the district being seen as a lower rung for ambitious would-be superintendents.
Vitalo: Hernando County is no longer a small district. We're growing. We're progressive in many ways out there, so we should be treated that way. That's one of the reasons why I say that we're not a training ground or a stepping stone. For the betterment of our kids, we need stability here, and that's what I was seeking.
Marrero: What do you think are the most important qualities in a superintendent?
Vitalo: Stability. When everyone is on the same page there are no surprises, we can progress very quickly. When you're trying to make rapid changes and don't understand why or what is needed or what is the long-term goal, we'll never establish a vision in one direction.
The other quality is how they work with people, how they bring in the community itself. Are they advanced in technology? Do they understand what's going on in the world? Because if you have the skills yourself, that would be an expectation of all of us and will filter down to the students and the curriculum.
Do they know how to talk with people? Can they bring in the outside help that's required in our schools? And can they show people how well we're doing in our schools?
Marrero: Now, put on your hat as president of the teachers union. What are teachers hoping for in their next leader?
Vitalo: To talk with us and not at us. To be able to sit down and understand we're all in this together. It's not a blame game. We're part of the solution. We want to get things done. Work with us. We're not wanting micro-management. When you're doing that you're not hearing all the solutions out there.
And the final thing is, we want someone who's going to be here for a while. Tell us what the common vision is and focus on that as a whole.
Marrero: Are you worried about the lack of Florida experience in the field?
Vitalo: You don't have to live in Florida to feel and know what we're going through. What we're experiencing, many other states are also experiencing.
There's an issue with the tax structure and the revenue sources, finding highly qualified teachers and keeping them. They're having the issues of growth and cuts. So when we're looking at these candidates, just because you live in the state, it doesn't automatically qualify you as the only people who understand the issues.
There are candidates out there that we're running across that had to deal with declining enrolments, declining funds. We have a couple in there that had to bring their districts out of the red in their budgets.
We also have seen some people in there (who show) how they connect and talk with the people in their community, how do they get them on board for the schools. I think we have an abundance of people who have experienced the same things Florida is going through.
Marrero: We know you can't comment on specific candidates, but do you see the next Hernando superintendent in the list of 15?
Vitalo: That's why we're on the committee. Somewhere in there is a candidate for us. You have to remember one thing: The committee is only doing the paper search. We do not have the opportunity to speak to these individuals, so we don't get to see the complete package.
Marrero: What do you think the district learned from the experience with Wayne Alexander, and what priorities await his permanent successor?
Vitalo: As far as the hiring process, I think the people on the last hiring committee didn't feel like what they had given had any validity to it. He was not the first choice and as a matter of fact was not on the preferred list that came out of the original committee.
One of the things we're trying do as a committee is ensure we give a reason or an explanation for each of the candidates that did not meet the criteria of the committee, so that if the board does wish to recognize and bring someone along, they would understand why we did not.
As far as Alexander the superintendent, during his first year he went out there. He was doing his town hall meetings and his talks with everybody, and everyone was starting to understand what was going on, but that was only his first year. He stopped that during the second year, and you need to be constant with what you're doing. I'm hoping the next superintendent understands you have to be consistent.
Most people need to recognize we're no longer a small district. We may have slowed down in growth but we can explode again. The issues that daunt us — and yes, I use the word daunt — are common throughout all of Florida and we need to tackle it as one of the leaders in the state and not one of the followers. That's what awaits our next superintendent, to make Hernando one of the leaders in Florida so parents can be proud of the schools here and other parents will want to come to Hernando County because they recognize what we're doing.
We do a great job in our schools, but we don't advertise it that well. What's even more stunning is our teachers still want to improve. They're not resting on their laurels.