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Pasco County School District superintendent Heather Fiorentino to seek third term

LAND O'LAKES — Heather Fiorentino wants to serve a third term as Pasco County schools superintendent.

"I think right now while we still have a turbulent economic situation going on, we want to make sure we have steady leadership," Fiorentino said Tuesday, after filing paperwork to kick off her campaign.

"We've had a lot of successes that we've had the right to be proud of," she added, mentioning such things as the district's steadily improving graduation rate and its stable financial ratings, despite the economy.

No opponents have yet emerged, with the primary eight months off.

Speculation has focused on three possibilities, though: former assistant superintendent Ray Gadd, whom Fiorentino let go in 2009; former county election supervisor Kurt Browning, currently Florida secretary of state; and School Board member Steve Luikart, a retired assistant principal.

Gadd has said he will make a decision by February. Browning has not returned calls seeking comment.

Luikart said he has no intention of running against Fiorentino, despite frequent requests from residents.

"We don't agree on everything. That's normal," said Luikart, who often challenges the superintendent and her staff during board meetings. "But I haven't given that any thought."

Fiorentino, 53, has spent 28 years in the school district, beginning in 1984 as an elementary school teacher. She took a job in the district office in 1998, while serving three terms in the Florida House of Representatives.

She left the House in 2004 to seek the superintendency, surviving a bruising Republican primary against Chuck Rushe, then the district's chief finance officer and the hand-picked successor to retiring leader John Long. She won re-election in 2008 against teacher Steve Donaldson.

"My first four years went to building," Fiorentino said, mentioning the district's aggressive construction schedule that included the opening of 15 schools in four years. "The next term we really looked at the economy. Every year was just one shortfall after another."

During 2011-12, the district eliminated more than 500 jobs, implemented furloughs and failed to meet class size requirements as it endeavored to cut spending by $54 million. Employees did not receive raises for a fourth consecutive year.

Fiorentino said it wasn't easy to make such decisions, adding that she and the board tried to keep cuts from affecting employees and classrooms as long as possible. She suggested that the economy looks ready to rebound, which should permit the district office to refocus its efforts on operating more efficiently and supporting the schools.

"We're going to have to change the way we're thinking in the district," Fiorentino said, explaining that her priority would be in redefining roles and responsibilities to help schools meet individual student academic needs. "There's so much more we can do."

She said she also would like to look for ways to offer children and families more academic choices, such as magnet schools.

Continuing to improve communications remains a goal for Fiorentino, as well. She does not seek a repeat of procedural blunders that had district bus drivers gaining national attention for their protest against a rule that did not permit them to drink water while driving their routes, for instance.

More preferable would be the positive press she and the district received while hosting Vice President Joe Biden, the highest level elected official ever to visit a county school. Fiorentino said she has made strides, holding more frequent community and faculty meetings to discuss important matters.

"We still have to communicate better," she said.

Two School Board seats also are up for election this year.

In District 2, incumbent Joanne Hurley has filed her campaign paperwork. She faces a challenge from two political newcomers, Don Stephenson and Bryan V. Williams.

In District 4, incumbent Alison Crumbley said she "definitely" intends to seek re-election but has not filed her papers. No other candidates have entered the race.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Pasco County School District superintendent Heather Fiorentino to seek third term 01/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 8:32pm]

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