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COMPARISON BODES WELL FOR HERNANDO SCHOOLS

Two years apart.

Two very similar situations.

Two very different superintendents.

Two very different judgments.

Last week, the staff at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, one of Hernando County's three magnet schools, sent each student home with a letter urging parents to "Save Our School." The letter asked parents to show up at Tuesday's School Board workshop, where the viability of magnet schools would be discussed.

The letter was written by a group of parents, but principal Sue Stoops authorized her teachers to send it home with students.

When superintendent Wayne Alexander learned about the letter, he did not hesitate to condemn the school's involvement, or attempt to defend his principal's misstep.

"It shouldn't have been passed out or sent home through the school," Alexander told the Times, recognizing that doing so created the unmistakable appearance that the call for a show of force at the School Board meeting had the blessing of the district.

Stoops took the blame and said it won't happen again. She - and every other principal in the county - heard Alexander's message loud and clear: Don't take sides in political controversies. Case closed.

Rewind to April 2005 and compare these circumstances and outcomes.

The principal at Chocachatti Elementary School, the county's first magnet school, sent a letter home with students calling on parents to "rally your support for our great school" during a heated controversy about enrollment. While other schools were overrun with portable classrooms, this principal claimed that being forced to accept more students would "destroy" the school's magnet programs.

The principal urged parents to write letters to the editor in support of Chocachatti. He also used the letter in an attempt to discredit the Times, alleging (incorrectly, by the way) that the newspaper opposes magnet schools and had "slanted" stories and taken "cheap shots" at him by implying the school might be receiving preferential treatment. He and his staff packed the board meetings to plead their case collectively.

According to then-superintendent Wendy Tellone, the principal did not consult her before sending home the letter. But even if he had, she would not have stopped him. He was doing what he thought was in the best interest of his school, Tellone said at the time. And even though some School Board members were not happy with the principal's action, she was not compelled to denounce it.

Doing so might have created a sticky wicket for Tellone because the principal of Chocachatti also is her husband, Michael Tellone. The superintendent either let her husband get away with something she would not have let other principals do, or she empowered each principal to operate with the same reckless autonomy. Either way, it put her in an untenable situation and sent the wrong message to her staff and the public.

The Tellones are retired now, and this recollection is intended less as an admonishment about what went wrong two years ago, than it is a promising sign our new superintendent is demonstrating sound judgment and confident leadership. Alexander's reaction was spot on; he gave clear direction, and he did it promptly and without equivocation.

That is much easier to do when one is free to act without fear of the fallout, political or personal.

Jeff Webb can be reached at webb@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6123.

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