Sunday, December 17, 2017
Education

Pasco School Board launching investigation into complaints of campaign coercion

LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco School Board has launched an investigation into complaints that superintendent Heather Fiorentino is coercing campaign support from her staff.

The board called for action Tuesday morning after retired Pasco Elementary School principal Barbara Munz leveled accusations that many administrators in the district feel intimidated and threatened, yet they fear speaking out.

"District and school-based administrators have been contacted on several occasions regarding campaign events, including one contact during the workday via text," Munz told the board, saying that she was speaking on behalf of her friends who still work in the district. "Others have expressed feeling pressured to walk (in door-to-door campaign efforts) to the point that they have had to rearrange schedules to accommodate the campaign to avoid being considered a non-team player or even worse, insinuating or implying their names would go on a list."

Politics have long played a role in the district, Munz said, adding that she often participated. "However, it was because I wanted to, not because I felt I had to."

Fiorentino sat quietly through Munz's comments and the board's lengthy discussion about how to handle the situation. She took copious notes but said nothing.

After the board's meeting and workshop ended, Fiorentino let loose.

She vigorously denied forcing anyone to work on her campaign. She said she had fundraisers that employees attended, and some of them filled out forms offering to volunteer. She acknowledged asking those people for their assistance, but nothing more.

"It is purely political," Fiorentino said of the board's investigation. "They will find out I have done nothing wrong. My integrity is intact, as it always has been. Last time I ran against the good old boy machine, they tried the same tactics."

Former longtime county Elections Supervisor Kurt Browning, Fiorentino's main rival in the Aug. 14 Republican primary, has close ties with several of the board members. He said he had nothing to do with Tuesday's turn of events, which he watched from the back of the meeting room.

He said he didn't need to get involved.

"I think there's enough unrest out there that people are tired of," Browning said. "It's unfortunate the very staff that is complaining are the ones who are afraid to speak."

Munz spoke for them, making clear her disdain for the activities she has heard about.

After she left the podium, board chairwoman Joanne Hurley paused and let the words sink in.

She then said that complaints about bullying and harassment within the district administration have increased in recent weeks. She asked board lawyer Dennis Alfonso what options the board has to deal with them.

Alfonso answered that in instances where accusations arise against the superintendent and the top administration, review power falls to the School Board. He said he would follow up with Munz to learn more specifics, and then work with Hurley to determine the next course of action. That could include bringing in an outside reviewer.

In the meantime, board members directed employees with specific concerns to contact Hurley.

Alfonso assured that anyone who calls or writes would be protected from retribution by whistle-blower laws and policies.

Board member Steve Luikart noted that fear could hinder the effort. "Most people are afraid to come forward if they are still in the system," Luikart said. He wanted to know how employees can avoid retribution.

Alfonso said employees would have to prove any action against them was retaliatory.

Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, cautioned that such an investigation would be difficult to conduct. "The reason people don't want to come forward is because of the limitations of the board to remedy what they may feel are egregious working conditions," said Webb, who agreed that the atmosphere of fear in the district is real.

Employees are more concerned than ever about sticking their necks out because new laws make their jobs more tenuous if they get bad evaluations, she noted. The state's open records laws deny anonymity to those who want to pass along information but wish not to go completely public, she added.

The board should move forward, though, Webb said, because administrators should be held to the same high standards that teachers must adhere to.

"Teachers have always been told their behavior must be upright and professional in reality and perception. That's a hard row to hoe," Webb said. "It should be no less for principals and other administration."

Munz did not wait around to answer questions that board members had. Her hands were shaking as she walked out the door as the discussion continued.

"That was very difficult," said Munz, who retired about a year ago after more than 30 years in the system. "But it had to be done."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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