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Tough choices loom, Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino says

It's not been party time for Pasco County schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino. She's faced some criticism for her leadership in a recent review of her administration by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. She's also struggled to make budget ends meet while facing a $60 million shortfall and growing demands. Fiorentino shared her thoughts on both issues last week with the Times. Here's an edited version of the conversation.

I want to start with the FADSS report. … Before I ask any specific questions, I want to ask what is your general, overall reaction to what is in there?

To be honest, I am still digesting it all. Staff is going through it. … We are going to get input from everyone and then we are going to move forward with it. I think it brought up some pieces where it shows we have some areas to improve upon. (Among other things, the report discusses ideas for reorganizing some staffers.) …

Let's talk about the other side of it, the climate survey part. It sounded like there was a lot of finger pointing. The board micromanages. The superintendent micromanages. Nobody listens. ... How do you deal with all that?

There is never a time that you can't go back to look at the report and be reflective and say there are areas you need to improve on. … Some of the frustration is there have been so many changes. The mandates have been coming down so quick and furious from Tallahassee. (She details some examples of how changing rules lead to mixed messages coming from the district office to the schools.) …

What about some of the tensions between the different layers of the district — you and the board, the school administration and the district administration. Do you see any faults in there? Or is it all just circumstantial?

Well, one, let's start with the board and myself. We have a brand new board. Everyone is trying to learn their roles. Everyone is trying to build new relationships. And next week we are going to master board training. That was a big assistance last time, when I came on. … It helped everyone to understand their roles. It also helped fine tune communication.

For Pasco County, we have the youngest board that I can think of in recent memory (in terms of length of service). … Relatively, as far as the leadership team, we have a very young, new team for Pasco County. We're building our relationships with three new board members. …

In the past, legislation, go back 10 years ago. We had the A Plus plan. It was heavy, it was strong. It was one bill. That was it. We were done. Today, what do we have? Five hundred bills … dealing purely with education and education retirement. When you're dealing with those types of numbers, and some of them contradict each other … we've got to have a budget by July. I won't know what my funding is until May. There are threats the governor is going to veto it. There is such a mass of confusion coming down, it is frustrating for everyone. And every person is at a different level of understanding what is coming down.

Can we do a better job of communication? Absolutely. And I believe that is one of the areas we have been working on. We have grown so big, and people keep forgetting that. When I came here we had 54, 56 schools. Now we have 84. You're trying to communicate out to 10,000 employees and all the families, it has gotten harder. We have to do better.

Are you too strong willed?

You know, I am who I am. Can I improve? Yes. But I also think if you are going to run a big organization, you have to be a strong leader. These are challenging times. They are times of opportunities to give me growth. I don't think you want a weak leader, either. But it doesn't mean that I don't listen. And it doesn't mean that I don't work with people. … (She notes that budget presentations to all employees have helped people understand what is happening better.) For example, we don't have as many people today saying stop building schools and give me a pay raise. That was a big thing for a long time. …

Let's turn to the budget. … You've had all these town hall meetings. Have you heard any good ideas yet for what to cut? Because cuts are coming.

We just finished the last town hall meeting. We as staff have heard pretty loud and clear … that elimination of the arts won't be a recommendation. That doesn't mean there won't be cuts. … There were some good ideas. Right now Summer (Romagnoli) is in the process of putting them together. There is some information that needs to be looked at to see if it was accurate or not. …

You've got to allocations, you've got to let people know if they've got their jobs. You have to know what classes you're going to offer so kids can register. I'm curious. I saw the list (of possible cuts) you had up on the wall. If you did all that stuff, you'd have no school district left, basically.

Exactly. That's what you also have to keep in mind, even with the art and music. You have to have well-rounded kids, that's No. 1. Our mission has to be children. We have to keep our compass on north. North has to be children and what's the best education we can provide them. In that you also have to make sure that your staff, you're meeting their needs and making sure they're able to do their jobs.