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Growing distrust fuels race for school superintendent

A casual observer might suggest the 2012 Pasco school superintendent's race moved into a higher gear five days ago with the unflattering critiques from School Board members toward the two-term incumbent administration of Heather Fiorentino.

It's just a warm-up.

The real race is expected to go full throttle shortly with the pending resignation of Secretary of State Kurt Browning who leaves Tallahassee this week, returns to his full-time residence in Dade City and presumably begins a candidacy for superintendent of schools.

The start of this campaign stretches to spring 2009 when, six months after re-election, Fiorentino unceremoniously dumped assistant superintendent/new school guru/political go-getter Ray Gadd with no public explanation. It brought her near universal scorn, particularly among some of the heavy hitters in the business community.

But payback isn't the issue at hand even if this week's public commentary came from School Board Chairman Joanne Hurley, a neighbor and ally of Gadd's, and from Allen Altman, next-door neighbor and close friend to Browning. Altman and Hurley are the two longest-serving board members and both criticized Fiorentino's lack of communication for what they believed to be an administrative reorganization plan compiled without School Board input.

It illuminates the larger issue of a far-reaching and long-standing lack of trust between the board and Fiorentino. Consider:

• School Board member Steve Luikart, a retired assistant principal elected in 2010, asked for and received board permission to assemble his own task force to research the pros and cons of a four-day school week.

It's likely to be nothing more than an academic exercise, but Luikart took on this chore because he didn't believe the limited cost-savings information presented by Fiorentino's staff.

• School Board member Alison Crumbley, also elected in 2010, is criticial of Fiorentino for beginning an unscientific, election-year poll to measure public support for magnet schools without telling board members nor asking parents' specific questions about so-called fundamental schools.

• Last year, as Fiorentino took a passive role on the sidelines, rookie board member Cynthia Armstrong assumed the lead in pushing back against the building industry in the debate over suspending or halving school impact fees on new home construction. The public protests inspired Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano to cave to the political pressure and withdraw his support for cutting the fees.

• Hurley's predecessor, Marge Whaley, the mother of two Pasco schoolteachers, took the extraordinary step of publicly endorsing Fiorentino's opponent, Steve Donaldson, in the 2008 campaign.

I suspect there will be more endorsements forthcoming in the 2012 campaign, a byproduct of both the School Board and the superintendent answering directly to the voters.

Last spring, Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek and I interviewed Fiorentino just after the impact fee vote and the coincidental release of a consultant's report on the upper-level management of the school district. In the report, Fiorentino's employees portrayed her as a stubborn, inflexible micromanager who yells at her subordinates, stifles innovation and creativity and has a poor working relationship with the School Board.

She said then she needed to improve communication with board members. On Friday, Fiorentino said she believed communication had improved.

"I do think it has gotten better, but communication in a big organization is difficult. It's a very involved board that wants to get involved in the day to day and that's frustrating to them.''

This is an improvement?

I might be naive, but a majority of the board members don't strike me as eager to meddle in the day-to-day operations. Luikart is doing his own research to guide policy decisions on the budget. Crumbley wants fundamental school information because she believes that's where parental interest lies. Hurley, Altman and all the board members are going to have to buy in to a five-year administrative plan because they're going to have to vote to fund it every budget cycle.

Two decades ago, superintendent Thomas Weightman told me he was proud of the working relationship between the superintendent and School Board. It might have brought public accusations of a board of elected rubber-stampers, but, the board also asked their questions, received timely and accurate answers, and voted accordingly.

There is no ink on the rubber stamps now. That's a good thing. But the dysfunctional working relationship between Fiorentino and the Pasco School Board is not something of which a superintendent can be proud.

Growing distrust fuels race for school superintendent 02/11/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2012 12:49pm]
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