Q&A: What Hernando County Schools' strategic plan means for students, parents and district employees

Superintendent John Stratton discusses key points in the 2018-2023 plan, touching on mental health, technical education and social media.
Hernando County schools Superintendent John Stratton   Courtesy Hernando County School District
Hernando County schools Superintendent John Stratton Courtesy Hernando County School District
Published April 1

In recent years, Hernando County Schools Superintendent John Stratton said, the district's strategic plan has come in the form of a thick, deeply detailed notebook. The 2018-2023 plan, approved earlier this year by the School Board, is slimmed down, with a narrower focus, but more flexibility. Its five "pillars" include: student achievement, people, facilities operations, communication and community engagement, and fiscal responsibility and organizational effectiveness.

The stripped-down plan still is a lot to digest. To that end, Stratton answered the Tampa Bay Times' questions about its key points, touching on student mental health, the district's long climb out of the recession and the "good, bad and the ugly" of social media.

For those who want to read the whole plan, it's included in School Board documents.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What should parents or students take away from this plan?

I want them to know that students are foremost in everything we do, but parents are an integral part of that.

We’ve developed these pillars around that, and committees that have been working on these items. (We’re) bringing people in and getting involved, and monitoring and making sure we’ve been doing what we’ve said we’re going to do.

This is a breathing, living plan. We know we’re going to be tweaking strategies as we go, if we meet goals, adjust goals. Obviously, we’re going to be adjusting strategies if we’re not meeting a goal.

One of the student achievement goals is to bolster both technical education and college pathways. How can the school district balance those things?

I think we’re seeing a societal shift. … We’re recognizing that not all of our students are exiting their senior year ready for college or choosing to go to college. They may prefer to go straight into a career route.

So we’re building these pathways, and either way is a great option. You can cross-walk between the two. There are pathways across, not just up. … The idea is that at any point in life, I can choose to jump over to the other. That’s the ultimate goal.

(We’re) not shying away from our goal of getting kids into college. That won’t lessen, the rigor in that area.

I want to build two rigorous pathways that don’t have barriers between them, but can lead to a great career.

Another key factor is recruiting and retaining teachers. How might the recruitment process change over the next five years, and how do you get people to stay?

I don’t have all the answers, but we’re going to try to find them.

I believe in investing in people, and investing in them now, to try to pay off in a reward later.

(It’s) no secret, we run 30-40 openings for just teaching alone. We’ve got to close that gap. And I’m comfortable with telling you now that part of my (reorganization plan) will be asking for a position that oversees and does recruitment and retention.

I feel wholeheartedly that everything we do should be about relationship building. And I think that’s how we help to retain people. Yes, money’s there, too, and obviously this board’s been committed to increasing salaries, as long as we can.

We recognize that in today’s world, with the job market the way it is, we have to stay competitive at all levels, and we recognize the difficulty that our staff faces on a daily basis … But for me, it’s about relationships, it’s about leadership development — developing the person, not just the employee, and saying, “What can we offer you?”

And if they’re satisfied in their job, they’re going to stay.

One of your goals is to increase student access to mental health support. What do you think you’re doing well now, and where can you improve?

We’ve brought in some additional social workers … We’re hoping and anticipating the (state) Legislature will fund it more, so we can provide those one-on-one services when needed and small-group counseling. We have a team who’s been attending the trainings out there that the state’s putting on. We can improve if we can put those additional staff in.

Honestly, it’s resources, being able to get to it.

Our communication is excellent amongst each other. If there’s a student in need, we can get to it very quickly.

We have to put the stigma aside, and I believe it is, the more we talk, the more we educate, the more we have conversations about it. So that’s where I see us going, having the wherewithal to look out for each other … to understand that stigma shouldn’t be there, and that we’re here to protect everyone’s health, whether that’s physical or mental.

It seems that you see social media as key to engaging parents and school communities. How do you plan to foster discussions on social media while keeping them civil and productive, and then translate them into real life?

You get the good, bad and the ugly in some of it.

(Criticism of the district is) part of life. We’ll take that, and we’ll learn from it, and we’ll move forward. But when it’s inaccurate information (circulating on social media), I just wish they would’ve reached out first and confirmed.

On the reverse side, we will increase and continue to use (social media) to talk about the good things that are happening out there and to shape the message and to give honest information.

How much is money a factor in helping the district to meet these goals?

We need the money to operate as we’re being asked.

A simple (example) is the (school resource officers). We had to dip much more than we were anticipating last year into our general fund to cover that.

It’s working well. We think it’s great, love the relationship, but it comes at a cost. Everything we do comes at a cost.

We have been fortunate enough to come as a society out of this recession — it’s a little bit slower trickling to schools, in my opinion — but we also have been able to add back some services and some resources that we didn’t have prior.

But we are running at a deficit right now, and we have to correct that. We have to, in my opinion, figure out a way to increase revenue, in order to not get back to where we start cutting services again.

Anyone in this profession knew how lean districts had to cut over the recession years compared to what we needed. It’s just been a long time coming back.

If everything goes according to plan, what’s going to be different about the average student’s average school day five years from now?

At the end of this plan, I see our schools and buildings looking incredible and students having more course offerings than they’ve had before, students having more resources in terms of staff … staff having more resources, all the while keeping a balanced budget and a healthy fund balance.

There are so many little drops in the bucket we’re going to be going after. As the entire tide starts to rise, I think the students in the end will see an overall better education, better school system, better facilities.

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.