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Recent Hernando School District decisions raise questions of transparency

Recent moves by  superinten?dent Lori Romano have also raised transparency questions.
Recent moves by superinten?dent Lori Romano have also raised transparency questions.
Published Mar. 29, 2017

BROOKSVILLE — When the Hernando County School Board gathered last week for a retreat at a gated community, it was required by state law to notify the public of the event, said Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation.

It didn't.

To double-check her interpretation, Petersen said, she consulted with Pat Gleason, special counsel for open government at the Florida Attorney General's Office, "and she confirmed that there are no exceptions for these retreats or team-building exercises."

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said the failure to run a legal advertisement notifying the public of the gathering was an oversight caused partly by its timing, shortly after the week of spring break. Alfonso said he would "remediate" the lapse by summarizing the discussion of the retreat at an upcoming board workshop.

Petersen said that the law calls this approach a "cure" and that it could restore the validity of any action taken. (None was.)

"But it does not cure the violation," she said.

The unnoticed workshop came after a couple of other recent decisions that raise questions about the district's promises of transparency: superintendent Lori Romano's moves to end the contract with a private dropout prevention program, Catapult Academy, and institute a new adult high school — both without School Board approval or public discussion.

Though Alfonso okayed both decisions, a Tallahassee attorney with 45 years of experience in education law, Ron Meyer, interpreted state law as "probably" requiring these actions be approved by the board, and board member Susan Duval complained about the failure to notify the board about the Catapult termination at last week's board workshop.

"It would be nice to know ahead of time," Duval said.

Last week's retreat was the second of four that were planned as a replacement for training offered through the Florida School Boards Association's Master Board Program.

Hernando board members attended the association's full, 22-hour, $4,700 program after the election of three new members in 2014. Because the new School Board contains only one recently elected member, Linda Prescott, the association offered Hernando a seven-hour refresher course for all members and Romano for $1,800, said Tina Pinkoson, who runs the program for the association.

Romano said the association did not make that offer until recently, well after the retreats had been scheduled. And she said the board scheduled the retreats, including a two-day gathering in January, partly because members requested district-based training.

Regardless, the series of retreats was more extensive than any of the association's offerings and, though touted as a cheaper alternative, came at considerable expense.

Besides Romano and board members, the retreats include the five highest-ranking district staffers, who have an average annual salary of more than $90,000. Alfonso — who received $165 per hour for Tuesday's retreat — or one of the lawyers from his team has so far attended all three days and will attend the next two sessions.

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The district held the retreats at Silverthorn Country Club, which charged more than $500 for the day's meals and meeting room rental, and paid $600 for a private consultant to deliver communications training.

The morning was spent on training. Much of the afternoon was devoted to practicing brainstorming techniques that will be used in updating the school district's long-range strategic plan. But the discussion also veered into district business, including a review of community outreach strategies and the discussion of a draft of the strategic plan's "vision statement."

Several board members and district staffers said they were comfortable with the discussions because of their limited scope and because they thought the retreat had been advertised.

"I really don't think they got anywhere near a Sunshine Law violation in substance," Alfonso said.

The attorney general's Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual, however, states that "the Sunshine Law is … applicable to all functions of covered boards and commissions, whether formal or informal, which relate to the affairs and duties of the board or commission."

The district raised other issues by holding the retreat in a gated community, in a small meeting room without accommodation for the public, Petersen said. Though Silverthorn did allow a Times reporter through the gate to attend, she said, "I believe that the law would prohibit (the board) from meeting in a gated community unless the gate is up and members of the public are free to come and go."

And, she said, district staffers "have to take minutes."

Romano said the board would re-create the meeting from flip charts completed during the training and notes taken during the session.

An indication that the failure to provide notice was an error, she said, was the district's previous notifications for all training sessions, including the one in January.

But the day before last week's retreat — when asked about a previous pledge to inform a Times reporter of all retreats — district spokeswoman Karen Jordan said "that's not a noticed meeting."

She did so, she said, without checking with board secretary Kelly Pogue to determine whether it had been noticed. Romano said that Jordan, who handles all district communications, is not responsible for meeting notifications.

Romano also said she did not terminate the two-year contract with Catapult — signed by former board Chairman Gus Guadagnino in May 2015 and due to expire June 30 — but chose to "non-renew" it.

For that reason, Alfonso said, he thought it was within Romano's power to take action without board approval.

But the contract was set to renew automatically if no action was taken, and the letter Romano sent to Catapult in February said she was acting on one of the "termination remedies" provided in the contract — notifying it more than 90 days before expiration. The district will pay Catapult about $700,000 this school year.

Alfonso said he considered the creation of the adult high school — put in place in February and now serving one student — an expansion of existing adult education programs, which he determined was "in (Romano's) wheelhouse."

Sophia Watson, the district's supervisor of adult and technical education, said that the decision was based on a change in state law that gives districts more freedom to offer adult high schools, and that she has previously started new adult education programs without board approval.

But a broader view of these decisions — discontinuing a private program and starting a public one that serves a similar population — suggests that they should have been left to the board, said Meyer, the education lawyer.

Though Meyer agreed with Alfonso that the law in this area can be unclear, the statute does state that, when it comes to the "elimination of school centers and consolidation of schools," a superintendent should "advise and counsel with the district school board."

The law also says the superintendent should "recommend to the district school board for action."

"My takeaway is that the superintendent has the responsibility for making the recommendation, but that the school board should be the body that acts to consolidate schools," Meyer said.

"It should be in an open meeting — a recommendation and an official board action."

Catapult was especially ripe for discussion because the district has long known about its underperformance, said Duval, who along with board Chairwoman Beth Narverud said the matter should have been discussed in a workshop.

More than one-third of roughly 250 Catapult students dropped out last school year and its state-reported graduation rate was a tiny 1.2 percent, though that number is artificially low because it failed to capture Catapult students who returned to graduate from their original schools.

"If there is an issue with any project, if it's not going in the direction the staff would like it to go," Duval said, "the sooner the better we know what is happening and what the potential replacement is."

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com. Follow @ddewitttimes.

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