BROOKSVILLE — Despite hearing a handful of pleas to reinstate Superintendent Lori Romano, Hernando County school officials cemented their decision Tuesday by hiring her temporary replacement.
Board members voted unanimously to approve a contract with John Stratton, a longtime administrator who served in Romano's cabinet for two years. At the same meeting, officials approved Romano's formal termination letter citing "ineffective leadership" and communication shortfalls.
Stratton, 52, will lead the district through November's election, when three contested School Board seats are decided. Meanwhile, current board members will search for candidates to permanently fill the superintendent post by June 2019, when Stratton's contract runs out.
"I am grateful for the dedication and professionalism of the Hernando County school staff," Romano wrote in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday. "That character is exactly what defines a world class school district of which I am honored to have been a part."
Before taking his new seat beside board members Tuesday, Stratton told the Times he plans to "keep moving forward with the great initiatives that have already been put in place" to increase student achievement. The new title earns him a boost in annual salary from $97,925 to $124,000.
When the School Board voted 3-2 to fire Romano on June 12, she asked members to explain why. She got her answer this week in an official termination letter.
Drafted by School Board Attorney Dennis Alfonso, it made the case for the board's decision to fire Romano for cause, so they could avoid litigation and paying her severance. The letter pointed to her recent decision to fire 47 teachers at long-struggling Moton Elementary School, the public backlash that followed and her attempts to block a districtwide survey to evaluate her performance.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hernando schools superintendent 'pink-slipped' by public following firing of 47 teachers at Moton Elementary
Regarding Moton, the letter said Romano failed to fully advise board members of the "timing and scope" of her plan, which was "disruptive to students, parents and School Board employees."
"You provided untimely, incomplete and/or inaccurate information," the letter said. "Your plan for MES was inappropriately (if not incompetently) timed and executed."
The letter also referenced the negative feedback Romano received on last year's districtwide survey to evaluate her performance, as well as her efforts to block a second survey this year.
When the School Board approved the second survey in April, the letter said, Romano refused to provide employee email addresses, which are public record, to facilitate the survey.
"You did not have support ...for your directive," the letter said. "It appears to be nothing more than an act of malfeasance intended to interfere with the proper execution of the Board action following your unflattering rating."
Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools
Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
RELATED COVERAGE: Survey shows employees praise, fear Hernando School Superintendent Romano
The letter also charged Romano with presenting "incomplete and/or inaccurate" financial information to the County Commission during its April 24 meeting.
Romano has until July 5 to request a post-termination hearing to contest her firing, per her contract with the board. If cause for her dismissal is found, Romano could have to pay the board up to $25,000 in damages, which would go toward the cost of finding a new superintendent.
MORE: Read the whole letter here
Discussion about how to fill Romano's spot began Monday, during a special workshop Johnson called so the board could meet with representatives from the Florida School Board Association.
Instead, the meeting began with a declaration of support for Romano by board member Gus Guadagnino, who voted to keep her. He said the vote confused him, and that he felt like a "damn idiot."
"I would love for one of you to rescind your vote, so that we could get together in a professional manner and take care of business in a professional manner," he said. "This is absolutely crazy, as far as I'm concerned."
Without a motion for reversal by one of the three members who voted to fire Romano, "it's not on the table for it to even happen," Alfonso said.
Johnson concurred: "The board took a vote, and we can't go backward."
School Board Association Executive Director Andrea Messina told the board the upcoming election could complicate finding a new superintendent. A search likely would become a primary campaign issue, she said, which could deter quality superintendent candidates from applying.
"I know if I lose my election, I don't want to be the one that selects the new superintendent," Johnson said. "I think it's only fair for the new sitting board to make a decision on who they're going to live with for the next four years."
The board agreed to postpone filling the spot permanently until new board members are sworn in, but agreed to approach Stratton about serving temporarily. Messina will revisit the board on July 24 to discuss the terms and cost of its superintendent search-consulting services.
A handful of community members at the Tuesday meeting spoke in favor of Romano, scolding board members who voted to fire her.
One called the decision "shameful." Joe Santerelli, a local pastor who recently announced his run for School Board against incumbent Susan Duval, quoted scripture on forgiveness. Duval was among the board members who voted to fire Romano.
Following the comments, the board voted to hire Stratton. Johnson called for a short break so Romano could step down from the dias. As she did, Johnson asked the audience to give her a round of applause.
After a standing ovation, and handshakes and hugs from some in attendance, Romano took a front-row seat to watch the rest of the meeting. Stratton then took the superintendent's chair.
Board members voted 4-1 to approve Romano's termination letter. Guadagnino cast the sole vote against it and made a final plea for Romano.
"It's done," someone from the audience called out.
Then, board member Linda Prescott, who cast the deciding vote to fire Romano, spoke up.
"If the Dr. Romano that all of you support ... if that was the Dr. Romano who from day to day worked in this district, she could be here, I guarantee you, until she retired," she said. "Unfortunately that is not the Dr. Romano that walks through that door every day.
Then Prescott turned toward Romano.
"If you would be the person that all of your supporters ... know, you would be in your job for a lifetime," she said. "But sadly, that is not the person that many of our teachers, our administrators and our staff have seen."
Contact Megan Reeves at email@example.com. Follow @mareevs.