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  1. Education

Ex-superintendent's appeal forces Hernando school board to ask itself: Was it right to fire her?

Ousted Hernando County schools superintendent Lori Romano returned Wednesday morning to the school district office, this time for an appeal on her firing in June. Her attorney demanded the school board rescind the firing, while the board's outside attorney argued the board had more than enough cause to fire Romano.

In a wrinkle that could happen only with the firing of a superintendent, the school board played dual roles. Its members voted, 3-2, to fire Romano on June 12. Now, they'll judge whether they had cause to do so.

Board attorney Dennis Alfonso called it "a unique circumstance." Tammie Rattray, the lawyer representing the board for the Romano hearing, deemed it "a little bit of an unusual process."

Wednesday morning's arguments unfolded in brisk fashion. Alfonso, who did not argue on the board's behalf, said he'd helped both sides agree on the process, wherein the attorneys summarized their points and gave the board thick binders of documents to review. At the crux of both sides' arguments were points the board laid out in its letter terminating Romano.

Romano's employment contract stipulated she could be fired for "misfeasance, malfeasance or corruption in office, incompetency, insubordination, immorality, breach of contract, material breach" or violation of any law.

If the board proves Romano did any of those things, she could have to pay up to $25,000 in damages. The money would fund a search for a new superintendent, if the board opts to conduct a search rather than stick with interim superintendent John Stratton.

If the board overturns its own decision, it's unclear what would happen next.

Much of the discussion focused on Romano's firing in April of 47 teachers at struggling Moton Elementary School. Board members have said Romano notified them of the plan only the night before the culling and gave them incomplete or inaccurate information about her plan. Families of Moton students learned of the firings via social media before being notified by the district the next week. Romano also admitted that she violated the contract with the district teachers union, resulting in a settlement.

In the termination letter, the board described the firings as "inappropriately (if not, incompetently) timed and executed."

Rattray described the firings as creating "chaos," "confusion" and "true despair."

Romano's attorney, Kathryn McHale, suggested that board members hadn't paid close enough attention to difficulties at Moton and to Romano's attempts to turn the school around. Romano had control over the hiring, firing and reassigning of district personnel, she noted.

"That is her job," McHale said. "Not yours."

But Romano's handling of the situation — which attorneys on both sides said was planned well in advance — misled the board, Rattray argued, and it cast a bad public light on the district.

"We've got a failure of presentation, a failure of perception," she said. "And as we all know, perception is often much more powerful than reality."

The Moton situation constituted "incompetency," Rattray said. She expounded on each of the points listed in the termination letter, including Romano's refusal to release employee email addresses — which are public record — to a University of South Florida researcher to conduct a survey about Romano's performance. Because the board approved the survey, Rattray said, Romano's attempt to block the release of public records was insubordination.

The district compiled the survey after Romano's firing, Rattray said.

"The remarks are, quite frankly, stunning," she said. "I just did a simple word search ... for the word 'fear,' which appeared 45 times in comments from the survey. I did a word search for 'honest,' which appeared 14 times in the survey. And 'Moton' appeared 55 times."

McHale questioned the accuracy of the survey, and she said that releasing the public email addresses without a contract with the researchers would have constituted "malfeasance."

Rattray called that "a complete red herring."

Much of McHale's argument centered on the days just before and just after Romano's firing. A letter from McHale on June 11 threatened legal action against board members Beth Narverud and Susan Duval for breach of contract, alleging both had failed to meet with Romano before evaluations, as required by contract.

On Wednesday, McHale accused the board of firing Romano in retaliation for the letter.

She also argued that the board made its decision to fire Romano hastily. Its termination letter came after members decided to fire Romano, she pointed out.

"You put the cart before the horse," she said several times.

But taken as a whole, Rattray said, the board's termination letter more than justified its decision to fire her.

"I would argue to you that you have just cause above and beyond what you need," she said.

Both parties likely will reconvene next week for closing arguments. The board plans to make a final decision on whether Romano's firing was justified during the Oct. 23 board meeting.

Contact Jack Evans at Follow @JackHEvans.