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Pasco school superintendent election is referendum on Fiorentino's leadership

Over a four-day period in 1999, then-Pasco school superintendent John Long received 62 contributions of precisely $100 each from principals and district administrators toward his final re-election campaign.

"We all think alike,'' a grinning contributor volunteered to me at the time.

Long won re-election in 2000 with no opposition. By many accounts, it might have been one of the final times school administrators were united in their political thinking or smiling about writing checks to the boss.

Heather Fiorentino, a teacher and state legislator, won a contentious race eight years ago to succeed Long who died a year after his 2004 retirement. As she seeks a third term, she now faces accusations that her administrative team is being coerced into supporting her campaign. No like-minded thinking on this one.

Five days ago, retired elementary school principal Barbara Munz appeared before the School Board and relayed concerns from current employees about political intimidation; concerns that escalated with the proposed transfer and then resignation of highly regarded district administrator Amelia Van Name Larson. She contributed monetarily to Fiorentino's re-election effort, but is close to former assistant superintendent Ray Gadd, one of the leading supporters of Fiorentino's chief opponent.

Fiorentino denied any wrong-doing and said she welcomed a School Board inquiry and told Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek that the Munz appearance was politically orchestrated and the "last time I ran against the good-old-boy machine, they tried the same tactics.''

Let's face it, this is getting deep on both sides.

There are 295 school district administrators including principals, assistant principals and those working at the main headquarters in Land O' Lakes. These are contract employees whose appointments were renewed in late June.

Considering the anti-bullying messages so prevalent in the public school system, one would hope contract-protected administrators would stand up for themselves, confront the coercion and decline the campaign's invitation to walk precincts. The anonymous squawkers would do well to take a dose of inspiration from the courage shown by Munz.

As for Fiorentino, she isn't running against the good-old-boys. She is a part of the Republican stronghold in Pasco County and has been for years. More accurately, she's running against a woman — herself.

Student achievement, enhanced vocational education, teacher evaluations, shrinking budgets, pay cuts, layoffs and the litany of state and federal regulations with which educators must comply are overshadowed in this campaign. Fiorentino is running against her own management style that employees characterized in an independent audit last year as inflexible; one that stifles innovation and creativity. Employees described Fiorentino then as a person of "strong will … who is willing to exercise that trait, verbally and frequently.'' Principals said their input was sought, but then ignored.

No wonder they're not lining up to volunteer for campaign walks.

Fiorentino's chief political rival is Kurt Browning, the former Florida secretary of state and longtime Pasco elections supervisor. They and Moon Lake handyman Kenneth Benson are running in the Aug. 14 Republican primary. The winner is scheduled to face only two write-in candidates on the November ballot.

Rest assured, there will be more distractions in this race. I suspect Browning will be criticized by Fiorentino's camp as a Gov. Rick Scott appointee tethered to the public payroll by both pension and salary. Or, as the one who enforced the Legislature-approved state law limiting third-party voter registration drives. Or who lacks a career in education. What they will have a hard time attacking are Browning's leadership abilities and his highly regarded career in public service.

This election is a referendum on the incumbent's management techniques and decision-making processes and the public commentary from Munz echoes last year's consultant's study. The superintendent's campaign apparently is being run in the same fashion as the school district.

It's an unflattering illustration of the confidence level in the incumbent. Under Fiorentino's predecessor, the superintendent's subordinates were eager to aid the re-election campaign. In 2012, many do so with reluctance if they do so at all.

Pasco school superintendent election is referendum on Fiorentino's leadership 07/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 7, 2012 11:13am]
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