BROOKSVILLE — John Stratton, who took over as interim superintendent of Hernando County schools in June amid his predecessor's tumultuous firing, will likely get to chop the "interim" from his title. The Hernando County School Board voted Tuesday to negotiate a contract with Stratton, all but ensuring he'll stay in the role for the foreseeable future.
The board voted 4-1 to open negotiations after hearing opinions from administrators, teachers and residents — some of whom advocated passionately for Stratton and some of whom demanded the board open a search for the next superintendent.
None of them suggested that Stratton, who was appointed interim superintendent after the School Board fired Lori Romano, had failed in his seven months on the job. Those who favored keeping him in the job praised his leadership skills, his experience and his visibility and approachability in the district's schools.“In my opinion, the last thing we need to do is bring someone in from outside the district if we have viable candidates from within,” Fox Chapel Middle School Principal Ray Pinder said. “Tonight, I propose that we move forward with the person we trust.”
Many who asked the board to open a search echoed the same sentiments, with some saying they thought Stratton would win out in a search. But they also noted the previous incarnation of the School Board, when it fired Romano, planned to search for the next superintendent. And they said opening a search would be the most transparent way to move forward.
“I really do believe in addressing the process,” teachers union president Vince Laborante said. “I truly do believe that conducting the search would be in the best interest of the district, the students, the teachers and the parents. It’s an action of transparency, and I think it would be well worth the effort.”
The emotional tenor carried into the board's discussion. Board member Gus Guadagnino blasted the resistance to keeping Stratton, calling it "nothing but a witch hunt."“I am not going to jeopardize someone I know is doing a good job,” he said.
Linda Prescott, who ultimately cast the lone dissenting vote, said she'd heard mixed feelings on the subject from community members. Though she advocated a search, she also praised Stratton's openness commitment to the district.
Other board members said they were more conflicted. Board chair Susan Duval had previously advocated for a search, but she said this was a rare occasion where she would go back on a promise. Stratton has already moved the district forward, she said, and now she worried a search would halt that momentum.
“We expect him to straighten things up, and if that doesn’t happen, we will talk to him. You will talk to him,” she said. “I believe that, and if I’m wrong, I’m out of here, because you’re placing your faith in us to make that decision.”
Board member Jimmy Lodato was on the fence as well. But he said the support shown for Stratton on Tuesday, as well as Duval's speech, left him convinced.
“I’m not going to stand in the way if Mr. Stratton will promise one thing,” Lodato said. “If he will listen to our teachers, if he will listen to our community, if he will listen to everyone who stands here in front of him … If you will say yes to that — this is our interview process.”“We are at a place now where we need to be united more than ever,” Stratton replied. “This job doesn’t get any easier. But the one thing we can do is lean on each other and unify with each other. … So yes. My long answer is yes.”