Superintendent Wendy Tellone had just one thing in mind earlier this year as she considered choosing new principals for Hernando High, Powell Middle and J.D. Floyd Elementary schools.
"What I was looking for," Tellone said, "was quality."
Along the way, she accomplished a goal long discussed but never achieved in the Hernando County public schools: increased diversity in the administration. The number of black principals rose from one to four, and one of the new principals is also Hispanic.
Tellone called it a "positive secondary effect." Diversity of viewpoints, opinions and life experiences, as well as ethnicity and culture, are important aspects of making good decisions for children, she said.
"But I think my role is to look for absolutely the best," Tellone said. "It should make everyone proud because (the new principals) are the best, and they just happen to add to the diversity of our staff."
Community response has been largely positive to the appointments of Michael Ransaw as Powell Middle principal, Marcia Austin as Floyd Elementary principal and Betty Harper as Hernando High principal.
"It just goes to show it doesn't matter what color your skin is, as long as you've got the qualifications," said Hernando County Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams, who in 2000 became the first black person elected to a countywide office. "I think (Tellone) has done what is expected of her, which is to place qualified people in positions that need to be filled."
Williams, who has lived in Brooksville all of her life, said the message in the principal nominations was valuable for Hernando County youth.
"It shows our kids you can be leaders," she said. "I think diversity is very important when you're dealing with people from different backgrounds."
Missy Keller, a leader in the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, said she would have expected nothing less from a schools superintendent. Educators must deal with all sorts of people from many different backgrounds, she said, and cannot treat them differently because of looks.
"Especially in this day and age, that really concerns me where people are playing the race card any chance they get," Keller said. "As far as how the community reacts . . . it's important for them to realize these decisions are not politically motivated. This is the way it had to be. The best person for the job."
The district has a growing group of minority students, said Irvin Homer, a retired educator who has run for School Board and frequently volunteers in the district.
At J.D. Floyd Elementary, 10.4 percent of the students are Hispanic and 5.2 percent are black. At Powell, 7.8 percent of the student body is Hispanic and 3.7 percent is black. Hernando High's enrollment is 11.2 percent black and 4.4 percent Hispanic.
For those children, minority principals offer positive role models, Homer said.
"They can see someone who looks like them in a position of authority," he said. "It bodes well for the school district."
Added diversity in the leadership ranks should boost morale for parents and children alike, said Cynthia Williams, the adult leader of the Hernando County NAACP Youth Council. As soon as the announcements were made, Williams said, council members "voiced their opinion about it, and they're very excited about it, even the younger ones."
She expects that each of the new principals will serve with distinction. She wishes only that the change had come sooner.
"To say that we are behind is putting it a little mildly," Williams said. "But a lot of things obviously had to come into play. It's no doubt this move should have been made long ago. Sometimes we just have to wait for the powers that be."
School Board Chairman John Druzbick, who recently began his third four-year term on the board, said he never expected any superintendent to hire based on race, and he downplayed the decisions this year.
"I'm sure they were picked because of their qualifications. If it happens to be a person that is not white, what's the difference? The person is qualified," Druzbick said. "Having good leadership is a good thing."
That was the whole point, Tellone said. In different times, she noted, her decisions could have been different. Everything came down to current school needs and how the candidates fit in, she said.
"I had excellent candidates," Tellone said. "It was difficult."
_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.