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School Board appoints interim Superintendent, approves termination for cause letter to Dr. Romano

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To no avail, school board member Gus Guadagnino urged the board to rescind their vote on Dr. Romano’s termination during a special board workshop on June 25, 2018. Ultimately, he and other board members moved forward on hiring an interim Superintendent in a 5-0 vote the next day: Mr. John Stratton. Stratton has been serving as Executive Director of Business Services for Hernando County Schools and has served as principal of Central High School and Endeavor Academy as well as in assistant principal roles.  He’s been an educator for 25 years.

At the special workshop on June 25, Mr. Guadagnino, still upset about the termination, urged fellow board members, “I would love for one of you to rescind your vote so we can get together in a professional manner and take care of business in a professional manner.”

“How do three board members do something so significant that there was a vote of immediate dismissal and I’m totally clueless on what that is. How does this happen?”  Mr. Guadagnino asked.

Attorney Dennis Alfonso stated that it would require a majority vote to rescind the action.  “The action that was taken on the night of the 12th was to terminate the Superintendent’s contract effective June 30th.  Other actions were put into motion which were to empower the board chair to activate the search process.  There was action taken to direct me to prepare this letter to identify the cause which would be on the agenda for tomorrow night (June 26 Regular School Board Meeting)… The board is empowered under Roberts Rules to do what it can do- at this point in time without a motion to have a rescinded vote- it’s not on the table for it to even happen… Since other actions have been taken on the proposition to terminate the contract- it may be untimely to do that,” remarked Alfonso.   

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Guadagnino did not support the letter drafted by Attorney Dennis Alfonso outlining the reasons for Dr. Romano’s for cause termination.  The letter was passed by the board in a 4-1 vote at the Regular School Board meeting on June 26.  

During the special workshop on June 25, the Florida School Board Association’s  Executive Director Andrea Messina and Dr. Bill Vogel a FSBA consultant spoke to the board about issues related to hiring an interim and ultimately permanent Superintendent.

Messina explained in regards to hiring a permanent Superintendent, “I know that this is an election year and I also know that there are three seats up for election. One being an open seat and two having incumbents in it. That tends to complicate matters in regards to hiring a Superintendent… I want to also be clear that the law does not specify, it does not recognize an interim Superintendent. The law requires each school district to have a Superintendent.”  She explained that the contract length is what determines the interim status.

“Whoever you decide to move forward with is going to be the Superintendent of the Hernando County School District for the length of time that you all decide,” she said.
She specifically warned that the elections do tend to complicate matters in the Superintendent search.  “I will tell you in an election year, there are two candidates- whether they are incumbents or not, the inclination is to try to find ways to distinguish from one another on the campaign trail. And if you’re looking for a Superintendent during that time, you’ll find candidates will tend to pick sides and that becomes a campaign issue. So I do have concerns because of an election year, you might not get the pool of candidates you want.”

School Board member Beth Naverud brought up using a community committee and Messina explained, “We strongly recommend that you do utilize a community committee. It’s a very public position so you want community input, but we also have some clear guidelines on the decisions the community committee should make to a board.  The law is very clear that the it is the board that makes the decision in hiring the Superintendent- not a committee… We call them an advisory committee- as they are in an advisory role and the board makes decisions.”
Board Chairman Mark Johnson remarked that the last permanent Superintendent contract took 128 days to finalize.  He suspects that the search could drag on for most of the next school year.

Messina commented that the timeline of other districts have been very short (virtually immediate appointment) to 6 months.
The board agreed to begin gathering a pool of candidates for a permanent Superintendent immediately.  The search committees will be formed Aug. 29 after the primary.  The actual appointment of the Superintendent will be given to the new board to take place at the earliest date of Nov. 18, 2018.  Interviews will be conducted prior to Nov. 18.   
Andrea Messina and Mr. Vogel will attend the July 24 workshop to discuss additional details on a permanent Superintendent search.
Several potential interim Superintendent candidates were provided by board members during the workshop on June 25.  The board settled on a number 1 pick of John Stratton and a number 2 pick of Mary LeDoux, Principal of Eastside Elementary.  There was mention of Ken Pritz, but he was eliminated because of his involvement in ongoing litigation with the district.  Pritz did receive some public support in the June 26 regular board meeting.  

Public Comment on Superintendent Termination 
Regular School Board Meeting June 26, 2018

Duane Chichester, former publisher of Hernando Today: “First of all, I’ve observed Hernando County School Board for years and years and years and I have worked with the school district in many ways- as a private citizen and as a part of the business community and found that we’ve had the good, the bad and the ugly here..But I can tell you, I understand how difficult it is to make decisions to set policy.  With all of the requirements the schools have on them today.  I can tell you that there are consequences when things are done improperly.”  He said that he doesn’t know all the circumstances, but as a business leader he was surprised because he’s heard nothing but good things about Dr. Romano.  “She has come to our community, looked at some of the problems, addressed them, set goals and has accomplished a lot.  I’m concerned about what’s happened…  There may be issues that I am unaware of but I can tell you that your community, you’re responsible to the children, the parents. You’re responsible to the community at large and the taxpayers. What you’re doing here will have consequences if you make the wrong decisions. Especially with regard to hiring another person, who that person is and what they’ll do. I encourage you to reconsider what you’ve done, before you finalize what you’re doing because there are consequences.”

Gregg Laskoski who serves on the half cent sales tax accountability committee stated,  “Last week we heard that one of the big issues apparently is communication. The way I was raised- if you have a communication gap between two people, then you have to build a bridge to fix that gap…  If there is a communication problem, I find it hard to believe that the burden of that problem falls entirely on one person. The other issue is community… We’ve heard virtually every school board member talk about the importance of community.”  He stated that the decision they made was the most important that has come before the board, but there was no attempt to communicate with parents in their districts, teachers or business partners.  “None of these constituents… stakeholders were important enough to consult with before coming back at 6PM to the very next school board meeting the same day and saying ‘we’ve got a 3-2 vote, let’s get moving.’”

Mike Maynard remarked,  “I’ve got issues with Dr. Romano- with my charter school and some other things, but to do it the way that it was done- without any kind of background… it was a knee jerk reaction.  It doesn’t speak well for the county at all.”  In April, the board denied  Mr. Maynard approval for an advanced learning charter high school program.

Joseph Santerelli took to the podium during citizens comments. Santerelli is running against Susan Duval for school board.  He said he was saddened and extremely disappointed by what he saw on June 12, but also realizes that the board has more information on what is going on than those on the outside…  “I understand that you have to make difficult decisions for the school system based on all the facts that we may not be privy to… It was one of the worst meetings I have witnessed.  I believe it could have been addressed in a more civil way, because you as a board are better than what I saw… It was after that meeting I decided to run for school board.”

Richard Sanvenero stated,  “Dr. Romano has excelled and has led the way for the following successes… It seems like there is a communicational disconnect between some school board members and Dr. Romano- either by coincidence or design. There is no place in our schools for politics.”

The board voted 5-0 to immediately appoint John Stratton as the Interim Superintendent according to the terms outlined in the proposed contract. 
Compensation will be at a base rate of $124,000 with an automobile allowance of $500 per month.  The term will end at whichever comes first: the end of June 30, 2019 or until a permanent Superintendent is selected.

Chairman Johnson asked for a round of applause for the good things Dr. Romano has done for the district during her tenure.  
After a short recess to bring Mr. Stratton to the dais, the vote on the termination for cause letter took place.  Mr. Guadagnino had several comments in regards to the letter.   He remarked, that there was no corrective action plans put together- reiterating that the decision was made too hastily.  “I need to know why we’re doing things except to refer back to here, here and here,” he said.

Termination Letter

The letter, which does not appear to have been included in the agenda packet for the June 26 Regular School Board meeting established eight circumstances for breach of contract.  
The first breach refers to her implementation of changes at Moton Elementary School (MES) and refers to statements received by the board in public comment during the April 24, May 8 and May 29 school board meetings.  The second basis for termination identifies feedback of ineffective leadership from the USF/CREAM survey evaluations completed by school board employees and board members dated July 25, 2017.  The third basis was her failure to discharge legal obligations to communicate with and to fully advise and counsel with the Board with regard to the timing and scope of her intended actions regarding MES staff.  The letter states that the action was not required as part of the turnaround plan for Moton dated Oct. 18, 2018. The fourth basis of termination also deals with her actions regarding Moton on April 13, 2018- stating that she acted in a manner inconsistent with the desired leadership culture of the District. The fifth basis describes an event where Dr. Romano denied or provided direction to deny a Superintendent evaluation researcher and a school board member access to list of board employee public email addresses to facilitate distribution of the survey.  The sixth basis refers to her appearance before the BOCC on April 24, 2018 where she made inaccurate statements to them about the actual total funding received by the Hernando School District from the legislature.  The seventh basis cites 4 sections on her contract with the district where she has failed to provide notice obligations to the board.  The final basis states,  “There are concerns that you currently have not appropriately assessed and acted upon any real or perceived conflict between your personal interests and your obligations to fully and faithfully discharge your public duties as Superintendent…” 

Dr. Romano has 10 days to request a post termination hearing on these charges- which will be conducted by the board.

Many of the reasons for the termination stem from her decision to remove all of the Moton Elementary teachers. Ironically, school grades released June 27, 2018 indicate that Moton Elementary School has improved from a D to a C for the 2017-2018 school year.  Removing all of the Moton teachers in April was an effort to show that the district is committed to taking all measures to improve the school in case they received a failing grade.  The failing grade would have put the school at risk to be shutdown, converted to a charter or taken over by a private organization.   The Superintendent felt that it would give her more ground to stand on before the state committee that determines the fate of the failing school and perhaps buy them more time to turn the school around.  Fortunately Moton has not received a failing grade and will hopefully continue to improve.

Looking Forward

Mr. Stratton made the following remarks after being appointed Superintendent of Hernando County School District:

“Over the years, our school district has faced and triumphed over difficult times because we have 2800 educators, administrators and staff who stay focused on students and their achievement. With that kind of dedication, we will always move forward and upward. I am honored to lead our school district and am excited to help guide that work.”

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