DeWitt: Superintendent of schools makes public relations way too difficult

Lori Romano has been superintendent of Hernando schools since 2013.
Lori Romano has been superintendent of Hernando schools since 2013.
Published May 24, 2017

If things are going well for a government agency, public relations should be a snap.

The organization can and should highlight successes. And when bad things happen, leaders are on firm enough ground that they can discuss them thoroughly, honestly and — this being, after all, the state of the famous Sunshine Law — publicly.

Before we get into how that works with the Hernando County School District and superintendent Lori Romano, I can tell you that after three years of covering the district — a job that a younger (and smarter and hungrier) reporter will take over next week — I think things with the district are generally going well.

True, we still have a two-tiered education system, with magnet schools such as Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics siphoning off too many high-performing, middle-class students. School Board members should also be concerned about the C grades received last year by all of the district's high schools, and, especially, about the apparent performance slide of flagship Springstead High School.

But graduation rates have climbed steadily, moving from beneath the state average to above it. The same is true, according to recently released scores, of performance on third-grade English Language Arts tests. Considering the scandalous lack of funding and support for public education among state lawmakers, it often strikes me as remarkable that most of the classrooms I visit are orderly and adequately staffed, with caring teachers and engaged students.

And give a special shout-out to the more-than-solid performances of high-poverty Eastside, Westside and Deltona elementary schools. If you run into one of these schools' principals — Mary LeDoux, Kristina Stratton or Debi Vermette — greet her like a community hero, because that's what she is.

Somehow, though, Romano has managed to obscure a lot of her and her staff's good work, mostly by trying to making it appear flawless.

Really, it's amazing. Almost all of the really bad stories about the district during her tenure have come from trying to suppress news that wasn't really all that bad.

The first and worst example of this was the email Romano sent from the address of former assistant superintendent Ken Pritz, falsely stating that he was "excited" with his transfer to the job of running the district warehouse.

It's been four years, Romano recently told me; isn't it time to let it go? Probably, except that the same general pattern has persisted in the following, less dramatic forms:

• The School Board's retreat, in March, at a gated community.

The main point of this was message management, to get board members and staffers feeling cozy and comfortable away from the public's prying eyes, so, as Romano said at the end of one session, "We can be one voice moving the district forward."

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Sorry, board members, that's not your job.

The district erred by not informing the public of this meeting, a violation of the Sunshine Law, then further undermined its credibility by offering the implausible explanation that this was just an oversight — two days after district spokeswoman Karen Jordan had indignantly informed me, "That is not a noticed meeting!"

• The questionable decision to end the district's contract with a private dropout prevention academy without first bringing it up at even a School Board workshop. Why, after all, would taxpayers want to know the district was spending $700,000 per year on a program that reported a (misleadingly low, but still dismal) 2015-16 graduation rate of 1.2 percent?

• Romano's behind-the-scenes meddling to head off the possible negative results of an employee survey about her performance and then misleading the board, in a public meeting, by saying that the delays were the fault of the University of South Florida professors producing the survey.

It should be pointed out that Romano is less accessible to the press than previous Hernando superintendents, that school visits often require prolonged negotiations and that documents here are harder to obtain than in, for example, Pasco County, where the Times education reporter regularly reviews the emails of superintendent Kurt Browning.

At Hernando board meetings, meanwhile, much of the real discussion has been replaced by check-presentation ceremonies, recognitions for school achievements great and small, and the relentlessly upbeat "Superintendent's Update."

I like an inspiring education story as much as anyone, but they tend to get lost by treating ordinary accomplishments as extraordinary.

The district spends a lot of resources on this kind of thing. Jordan's Communications and Government Relations Department has a staff of four, and the board recently agreed to spend $2,500 to pay for her to attend a public relations conference in San Antonio, Texas.

My first thought was that maybe she will learn to return a phone call. But more seriously, I hope that Jordan will be clued in to the value of just staying out of the way, that she will realize there is more than one benefit to open government.

It prevents bad conduct by allowing public scrutiny to shine in, of course.

But it also allows good work to shine through.

Contact Dan DeWitt at; follow @ddewitttimes.