BROOKSVILLE — As the new, temporary superintendent of Hernando County schools, John Stratton is tasked with more than running a school district. He’s putting a community back together.
The firing of his former boss and predecessor Lori Romano left a wake of division between those who stood with her and critics who pushed the School Board to replace her.
As a two-year member of Romano’s cabinet, Stratton was closely tied to her controversial initiatives. That included her recent decision to fire all of Moton Elementary School’s teachers, which led to dissension among officials, parents and teachers — and ultimately, her downfall.
Now that he’s at the helm through at least November as officials wait to appoint a permanent replacement, what’s his plan? He sat down with the Tampa Bay Times to talk about his goals.
"There’s a lot of mending that has to happen," Stratton said. "I think if we just ... come together and start talking about these things and realize, okay, maybe we can start over. Maybe we can move forward and have a common goal."
He said his path to that is simple: Communication and relationships. Striking a contrast with how Romano ran the district, those will be Stratton’s priorities above all else. Still, he said, Romano’s accomplishments on academics will stay in place.
"We’re all in this together," he said. "We may not agree — we don’t even have to like each other — but we’re all here for the same reason: To make it the best place for kids to get an education that’s possible."
Stratton, 52, grew up in St. Petersburg. He paid for college classes at the University of South Florida by working for the city’s parks department, as a teen leader at a community center near his childhood home.
That’s where he discovered his love for working with children, he said, particularly those with unique difficulties.
He took his first job after graduation in 1993, as a teacher for severely emotionally handicapped students. Less than two years later, he moved to Citrus County, where he continued working with special needs kids until moving to Hernando to help open Challenger K8.
In his 25 years as an educator, Stratton has taught students with physical, intellectual and emotional impairments. He’s been a principal at every level, and served as head of both academic and business services at the district.
Now that he has a shot as superintendent, Stratton said he doesn’t have any "radical changes" in mind. He doesn’t know if he wants to apply for the job permanently, but plans to treat his new duties the same, regardless.
"I’m going to be here one way or the other," he said. "This is my county, whether I’m in this seat or down the hall ... so I’ve gotta set it up for the best it can be whether I’m at the helm in the end or someone else is."
Communication is an area the district "desperately needs to improve upon," Stratton said, echoing complaints by the School Board and community members who often charged Romano with lacking transparency.
"It needs to be open — open communication," he said. "We’re going to be accessible and we’re going to give the factual information."
District leaders will be looking at ways to ensure information flows easily in all directions — internally, from the district to the public and vice versa, Stratton said. He spent one of his first days on the job last week calling principals and asking them what’s needed in their respective schools.
Another of Stratton’s goals is to improve the strained relationship between the district and the teachers union, Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, he said. Tensions grew in April, when Romano’s actions at Moton caused the union to file a grievance against the district.
"Some animosity has been built up and been building, and that’s not who I am, and I don’t think that’s who the majority of them are either," Stratton said, adding that he would have done things differently at Moton.
He must step away from heading the district team that bargains with the union, Stratton said, but plans to keep the promises he’s made in those negotiations.
"I learned from the experience (at Moton,) and my commitment to the union ... is just to be open and communicate," he said. "We’re working together, and we’re gonna build a great relationship."
Stratton said he plans to bring budget recommendations to the School Board soon, and looks forward to completing the district’s delayed strategic plan. Both topics were points of criticism for Romano leading up to her termination.
School safety and better services for special needs students are on Stratton’s radar, too. But rebuilding the community’s trust in the district is paramount, he said.
"I hope people take the opportunity to get to know me," he said. "I hope my actions speak for who I am."
Stratton wants a "fresh start" to the upcoming school year. Despite the change in district leadership, he said, parents shouldn’t worry whether their children are getting what they need from Hernando schools.
"The great things that are happening are going to continue, and the things that need to be looked at and addressed will be addressed," he said. "We’re going to get these schools open in August, and (students) are going to get the best education that they need and expect and desire and should have."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.