The race for Pasco school superintendent pits first-term Republican incumbent Heather Fiorentino against Democrat Steve Donaldson, a retired U.S. Air Force major and former businessman who began a high school teaching career five years ago.
One of the common knocks against Fiorentino, 50, is her lack of advanced degree, which would not make her qualified to serve as an assistant principal. But, she has obtained state certification as superintendent and she has been running the district for nearly as long as Donaldson as been teaching.
Fiorentino, a former teacher, New Port Richey City Council member and state legislator, assembled a strong district-level management team during her first term. Working with the School Board, the district opened and staffed 15 new schools to keep pace with growth and class-size amendment requirements; maintained student achievement while reducing the drop-out rate; advanced vocational education; worked to develop community partnerships with businesses and, until this year, negotiated fair compensation packages for employees.
But things are hardly rosy. Teachers picket School Board meetings seeking previously negotiated salary increases, relations with Pasco County government have been strained over transportation costs associated with school construction, micro-management is standard procedure, and communication between Fiorentino and the employees union is barren.
It must be noted that many of the obstacles limiting classroom creativity and teacher satisfaction come from Tallahassee. Among other things, teachers must emphasize standardized tests, deal with mandated blocks of reading time and daily physical activity for students and even answer a state dictate on which day of the year to focus on the U.S. Constitution.
A shrinking budget is beyond Fiorentino's control, too, and can be attributed to student enrollment missing projections and an economic slowdown that has reduced sales and real estate transfer taxes and therefore, state aid, to districts.
Still, Fiorentino isn't blameless for the employee morale issue. She generated ill will with her the hard-line stand on the disciplinary case against a suicidal teacher, needlessly focused time and energy on a teacher dress code, and most of all, implemented a multimillion-dollar, but much-maligned, teacher-training system known as Learning Focus Strategies or LFS that even Fiorentino acknowledged was done poorly.
Despite her shortcomings, Donaldson, 50, is not a preferable alternative. He is intelligent and holds a master's degree in educational leadership, but possesses no school-based administrative experience — the same criticism aimed at Fiorentino four years ago.
Donaldson said he sought to become an assistant principal candidate, but withdrew, blaming the superintendent for supporting administrators who, he said, made the process too cumbersome and not accessible to outsiders. It's a characterization that unfortunately and, we suspect inadvertently, casts aspersions on successful applicants, including the 57 who are eligible to become assistant principals. The extensive screening, examination and interview process has been in place since at least the early 1990s.
Donaldson's ideas on student achievement focus on vocational training for high school students and fail to recognize the career academies being put in place to advance certification in work-related subjects like information technology and engineering.
Donaldson promises to rebuild a working relationship with the union, employees and School Board members. Certainly there is work to be done and Fiorentino made a similar pledge to communicate better with the union.
We think Fiorentino's experience makes her better suited to do the talking, but more important, to work at listening, as well. The Times recommends superintendent Heather Fiorentino for re-election.