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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.

So as we move forward with that, some of the things we have to do are — let's choose arts and music as an example. Can we shorten some of the periods? Yes. Can we have some of the teachers go to different schools? Yes. Can you eliminate them? Probably not at the elementary level. … It's good for the kids. Last night was the first time, though, I heard someone say don't cut the arts, cut English and math. …

Everybody comes out and says what you shouldn't cut. … What can you cut? Can you cut sports? Can you cut busing?

You've got to remember, we've done many, many of the cuts. This is not just this year. So we've taken middle schools and we've combined them, already their sports. We've cut some of the transportation. Now the question is, can we cut the rest of the transportation? For sports, I'm talking. Can we tell the band kids they're no longer allowed to ride on the bus, they'll have to find their own way? Those are some of the questions we're exploring. …

There were a lot of suggestions that came across, have us pay for this, have us pay for that. Legally we're not allowed to. Let us pay for summer school. Make us pay for textbooks. Well, you can't. …

I am trying to figure out how you get to $60 million.

There will be layoffs. … Lynne (Webb, USEP president) and I are trying to work together. This year you are seeing a more collegial relationship between the two of us trying to get things done. She realizes that we're really facing a $60 million cut, there is no money there, that we really need to work together. We want to protect as many employees as we move forward, as we protect employees it is best for the students. But I can tell you there will be layoffs next year. There will be furlough days. …

We at the district took it on the chin each year because I realize the classroom is where it happens. That's where the rubber meets the road. However, in hindsight it may have been better to let people know ahead of time. Because they didn't feel the pain, they didn't know the kinds of cuts we were making. The first year we cut $16 million, the next year we cut $28 million. We aren't talking chump change. …

I've heard … I'll use the term punitive budgeting. You've got to make people feel the pain. That's why you've got to cut sports. That's why you have to go to a four-day school week and make it inconvenient for the parents. Otherwise they're not going to pay attention. …

You haven't heard me mention four-day weeks. As much as people want us to look at it, and as many times we hear parents speak, I think they may be parents who are (school district) employees. Which may not have the same impact on them as on parents who are not our employees. The one phone call I received from Bob White last year, the sheriff, was, Please don't go to a four-day week. Our crime rate will skyrocket. But that was a suggestion that was made. … It's not one I am looking at personally. I have been asked to look at the data, and we are doing that. … But just knowing the bigger picture of what it could affect is a major concern to me. …

How do you make people feel and understand you are actually making cuts? … Parents see kids going to school, taking class. Maybe they have to bring an extra roll of toilet paper to school because somebody said they ran out. But really they're not feeling it.

The other thing you'll also see is, we will have layoffs this year. And probably the normal Joe Blow parent won't notice a difference, hopefully, if we do our job right. Because if you're keeping your focus and compass on learning for the child, the adults are going to feel it. The children will feel some of it because yes, there will be less services that are provided, and less courses. But on the average, Joe Parent dropping their child off won't notice it. … The doors are going to open, their children are going to go in. Unless it is totally eliminated, they probably would never notice anything. The idea of punitive budgeting, it doesn't work. … I keep my compass on north.

.fast facts

More on the Web

For a fuller version of this interview, visit The Gradebook education blog at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook/

Tough choices loom, Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino says 04/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 3:15pm]

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