Hernando County School District superintendent Lori Romano and her two top administrators climbed into a spacious black Lincoln Navigator on Monday morning, ready to begin a whirlwind two-day tour of all 23 of the district's schools.
It was about 8:30 a.m. — they were already running late.
The SUV pulled out of district headquarters in Brooksville toward Hernando High School, the first stop of the day. On her first school day as superintendent, Romano didn't try to hide her excitement.
Out the window, she spotted a few children walking to class.
"Look at all the itty-bitties," she exclaimed from the front seat. "Precious."
A few moments passed.
"This is the best day of the year," Romano said. "I could never sleep the night before school. It's still that way."
The day's mission was simple: Show everyone — in all of the schools — that the district's top administrators are there to support them. And that they really, truly mean it.
Romano and her two assistants — Sonya Jackson and Ken Pritz — walked into the office at Hernando High.
Everything was running smoothly.
"It's always good to have someone smooth up front," joked secretary Teri Sellers from behind the front desk.
They walked the campus, running into a smattering of students.
"Is that the superintendent?" one student asked a friend as he walked past.
The trio moved into the performing arts center, where a crowd of seniors had amassed. They briefly greeted them and moved on.
"I'm glad I wore comfortable shoes," Romano said, plunking down in the vehicle.
On the drive, they talked about problems at Springstead High. The bells, phones and intercoms weren't working. No good. Other than that — and the always-prevalent problems with busing — the reports on the first day were overwhelmingly positive.
"I couldn't have asked for a smoother start," said Central High's new principal, John Stratton, during the next stop.
Same at nearby West Hernando Middle School.
"Did you sleep at all last night?" Romano asked principal Carmine Rufa.
"A little bit," Rufa said with a laugh.
At Pine Grove Elementary, they found a line of students protruding out the front gate, but no major problems. Among the crowd was Sharehea Willis, who transferred her son to the school from Eastside Elementary after Eastside received an F grade from the state.
She was one of about two dozen parents whose children left the school.
"Being as how it's an F school, obviously things aren't what they're supposed to be," Willis said. "They weren't ready."
Next up: Weeki Wachee, the county's newest high school.
Principal Troy LaBarbara showed them around, working his walkie-talkie, directing students to classrooms and conducting teacher evaluations.
Romano met a few teachers, including some who didn't recognize her — a scene that played out many times throughout the day.
They took a spin through Winding Waters K-8, next to Weeki Wachee High, and then headed to Parrott Middle School.
"It's kind of cool that you guys are coming out," said Parrott principal Brent Gaustad, walking through a mostly empty hallway. "We used to be the best little secret in town."
They moved into a crowded cafeteria.
Head custodian Cheryl Johnson was elated to see the new superintendent..
"Very impressive," Johnson said. "She shook my hand. That was impressive."
"The last two superintendents we had … it was like we were nobodies. That's the impression I got."
They left for Eastside. In recent weeks, the school has gotten not only a new principal, Mary LeDoux, but also a facelift.
"I want you to admire the sidewalks," Romano said. "They were full of mold."
They met LeDoux, who greeted her guests with hugs.
"There's just this feeling of peace," she said.
"Your campus looks great," Romano responded, later saying: "Even the atmosphere when you walk up on the campus is different."
There were more hugs.
At Moton Elementary, the day was going "freaky smooth," said principal Mark Griffith. Brooksville Elementary — aside from some busing issues — was also chugging along nicely. Endeavor Academy, the day's last stop, was quiet.
Gaustad, the principal at Parrott, spoke for many in the district when he commended the administrators' efforts.
"They're part of us," he said. "That's a change from the past in Hernando County. It's not us against them at all."
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.