Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning says he wants to change the culture of the public school system to embrace a collaborative approach to problem-solving. He just got handed his first problem — an outside report that says administrators feared professional retribution for their personal political choices in the 2012 superintendent's race.
That presumption of retaliation was so prevalent, even after Browning defeated two-term incumbent Heather Fiorentino in the August Republican primary, that many of the school employees interviewed by attorney Thomas M. Gonzalez declined to speak for attribution.
The report documents how two high-level district administrators, Tina Tiede and Beth Brown, summoned Crews Lake Middle School principal Chris Christoff and assistant principal David Huyck to district headquarters for separate chats about their political allegiances. Christoff had not responded to a prior text from another staffer about attending a Fiorentino campaign meeting. Huyck candidly replied to the text message that he did not "subscribe to the political aspects of the superintendent position.'' He contributed financially to Fiorentino's campaign "but I would prefer to leave it at that (at my own peril).''
Tiede later told Gonzalez she met with Christoff and Huyck because she was looking out for their interests and didn't want them portrayed as opposing Fiorentino's re-election. Even if Tiede's motivation is genuine, the reasoning is suspect. Christoff and Huyck wouldn't need protecting unless Tiede also presumed the pair faced detrimental career consequences if they didn't publicly support the incumbent superintendent.
The report says there is no evidence Fiorentino directed the activity. She told Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek that she and her supporters did nothing wrong and she characterized the issue as a witch hunt. Except, if there was no wrongdoing, why did Brown later apologize to Christoff and Huyck, saying she made a "rookie mistake?"
Clearly, the notion of principals receiving workday text messages about attending a campaign fundraiser, administrators being told it's a good idea to support their boss, and Tiede's comments to Huyck about blog postings she believed he authored under a pseudonym helped fostered a perception of political intimidation.
Browning must work to ensure that heavy-handedness disappears. The real dilemma, however, has been a fact of life at district headquarters since before Fiorentino's arrival eight years ago. Having the Pasco school superintendent as an elected position, rather than an appointed one, guarantees an underlying political atmosphere similar to other constitutional offices.
The question of whether school employees support a candidate because of genuine loyalty or because they're browbeaten will never be answered fully as long as the head of the public school system is picked in the voting booth by the electorate and not in the School Board room by five board members.