by KATHRYN DENTATO
Hernando Sun Writer
JAN. 8, 2019 Hernando School Board Meeting- For nearly 40 minutes, the school board heard comments from the public about interim Superintendent John Stratton and the process to hire a permanent Superintendent. Stratton has served as interim Superintendent since Dr. Romano was terminated in June 2018.
Prior to becoming interim Superintendent, Stratton served as Executive Director of Business Services for Hernando County Schools, he also 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.
Comments were overwhelmingly in support of Stratton and the job he his doing as interim Superintendent. Board Chair Susan Duval thanked those who came forward saying, “You speak with passion and heart, and I think as a Board, we appreciate your comments greatly.”
The Board ultimately voted to forego a search and retain Stratton as permanent Superintendent at the Regular School Board meeting on Jan. 8.
Duval asked for a motion (Guadagnino) and a second (Hatch), then opened the floor for discussion of the Superintendent issue among the board members.
Gus Guadagnino said he admired those who worked for the district and spoke on behalf of Stratton, but also recognized that there were some who were concerned about the community’s perception. With the number of people who interact with Guadagnino or could contact him, he said he has not heard any concerns about transparency in hiring Stratton. The community and business owners like Stratton, he said.
Finding a replacement for Stratton would throw out the idea of “growing your own” or hiring from within, Guadagnino said. Of those who advocate narrowing the search from a national to a state-wide pool of applicants, he said they are looking to hand pick a different Superintendent. “It’s nothing more than a witch hunt,” he said.
Jimmy Lodato spoke directly to Guadagnino, saying Guadagnino was on the board that voted unanimously to search for a Superintendent, a search which never happened. Though he agrees that Stratton is doing a good job, by not conducting the search that the Board agreed to, they have broken a promise. Guadagnino agreed that was true.
Lodato complimented the public for speaking in support of Stratton and asked for the school principals to stand. The number of principals and teachers who were present and passionately advocated for Stratton changed his mind, he said. Until the meeting, Lodato was in favor of the search and not hiring Stratton unless the interview process selected him. “You have overwhelmed me here tonight,” Lodato said.
Student Representative Ryan Bradley spoke in favor of Stratton, saying that his presence in the schools makes an impact on the students. They would not have been able to pick out the previous superintendent from a crowd or describe what they did. Bradley said Stratton has worked with the student delegates and helped them.
Guadagnino spoke again briefly, saying none of the comments they heard addressed the need for a better leader, better educator, etc. “It’s just bizarre,” he said.
Kay Hatch said that if the School Board initiates a search now for someone with qualities that Stratton does not have, the district will lose both time and momentum. She said she has not seen the support Stratton has from the district employees and public anywhere else. While she also supports Stratton, she believes that Stratton will continue the way he has begun. “I believe we need to stay on this path because good things are happening, and better things…will continue to happen,” Hatch said.
Linda Prescott referred to her interactions with Stratton and the staff. “They have done everything and gone beyond what I have asked,” she said. Prescott said she knows Stratton is committed and appreciated the principals and others who spoke in support of Stratton. She received input from the community while she thought about the search. Judging from the comments at the meeting Prescott said she believes Stratton would be the choice. The previous board did make a business decision and vote on a course of action and should follow through with it. If this board votes for the search and Stratton is selected, then he will be a stronger leader. Prescott is not unhappy with Stratton’s performance but believes in the process and thinks it is the correct course of action.
Duval said that when she makes a promise, she will follow through with it 99% of the time. She voted for the search because she believes in the process. It’s characteristic of her, she said, as much as her need to reflect or think about what she will do and why so that her decisions have the best outcomes.
A search for a superintendent cannot be limited to a local area, she said, but must be broad so that as many qualified applicants as possible can be reached. Time and how the daily operations would be affected are other factors to consider. “This school district means the world to me,” Duval said, and shared that it was the school district that drew her to the county. She cares about everyone involved, from students to employees. “I love how we can work together and make great things happen.”
Delaying the search could have adverse effects on the district and how it is moving forward, Duval continued. The community and employees can contact the school board members or Stratton, and some have. Duval expressed confidence that Stratton and the staff address concerns or problems in a timely and thoughtful manner. By the same token, Duval acknowledges that the community places faith in the school board to make good decisions and to hold the Superintendent and school employees accountable. She asked the community to trust her, especially since she very rarely changes her mind once a course of action is decided.
“This has to happen,” Duval said. “We have to turn things around. That is a given.” She asked the staff and community to understand that the school board makes decisions they believe are in the best interest of the students and the employees, and Duval wants good things to happen for the district.
Lodato understands the interview process from a business point of view, but he did not expect the level of support that he heard at the meeting. He asked Stratton to promise to listen to and engage with the teachers, staff and community. “If you will say ‘yes’ to that, this is your interview process,” Lodato said.
Stratton replied, “Yes, I believe we want the same things.” Unity was brought up during the citizen input portion of the meeting from those who wanted the search and those who were in favor of retaining Stratton. “We are at a place now where we need to be united more than ever,” Stratton said. Budgetary constraints, mandates, and potential changes are all things Stratton knows are issues and resolving them will take time.
“We’re in this together,” Stratton continued, and acknowledged the difficulties faced by employees in all areas of the district. “But the one thing we can do is lean on each other.” Anyone with a concern or question can reach Stratton and his door is always open. He said that decisions will be made to benefit the whole district.
“Then I will be here to help you,” Lodato said.
The vote was 4-1 in favor of retaining Stratton as Superintendent, with Prescott the only opposing vote. Duval announced that the contract negotiation will begin and said Stratton is aware of the level of accountability he will have and agreed to the performance evaluation from the Board.
Citizen’s Input on Stratton Negotiation Action Item, Jan. 8, 2019 Regular School Board Meeting
Bruce La Borante said Stratton came to the position through a difficult circumstance and was willing to do his best. He believes that following the process and conducting a search for a superintendent is the way the school board should proceed for the sake of transparency.
Pam Everett stated she would like to see the interview process as the previous board directed. She felt Stratton was doing well but said he should also go through the interview process.
Steve Crognale was an assistant principal under Stratton. Crognale listed several of Stratton’s qualities: fairness with staff, teachers and parents; follows district and school policies; outstanding work ethic; mentored Crognale with good feedback so that Crognale is a better administrator. Crognale stated that has continued even while Stratton has been the interim superintendent.
Christopher King offered his support of hiring Stratton as superintendent. He believes in promoting from within, indicating that Stratton has a commitment to both the community and the students. The recruitment cost involved in hiring someone who looks at Hernando County as a stepping stone is also a consideration. King said that hiring Stratton would maintain continuity of leadership. A 12 year veteran of the US Army, King’s own leadership experience as an officer gives him a perspective on what makes a good leader. He said a good leader makes others feel “appreciated, supported, and trusted to accomplish the mission.” With two school-aged children, King said he would like a superintendent who wants the best for students. He has seen these qualities in Stratton, he said. Stratton “connects with students, supports his teachers, (and to) consistently promote best practices.” As a teacher, King has met with Stratton and believes that any decision he makes is for the best interest of the students.
Thomas Kalament, Mildred Murrman, and Christopher Clifford approached together in support of Stratton, but Kalament spoke for the group. Of all the excellent administrators Kalament has worked under, he said Stratton is experienced in all aspects of education. As an assistant principal at Central High School, Kalament feels Stratton has built a positive, successful culture since working at the district office. Teachers appreciate Stratton taking time to visit classrooms in the district’s schools. Kalament feels the Board could not find a candidate more qualified than Stratton.
Ray Pinder (and three others), principal of Fox Chapel Middle School, says teaching leadership is something they do daily using the resource, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey. Pinder, whose K-12 years were spent in Hernando County, returned as a teacher. His transitions over his career were made easier because of the trust built with co-workers and with those in leadership over him. “How you treat one person gets discussed with others,” he said. “By building trust with one you build trust with many.” Pinder recalled a lesson from a training called “The Speed of Trust:” “When trust is high, speed is fast; when trust is low, speed is slow.” Building trust with someone from outside the district will slow the progress, Pinder said, and recommended hiring Stratton as superintendent.
Matt Goldrick gave three reasons the School Board should begin negotiations with Stratton: current role, temperament, and experience. Goldrick said he was impressed that Stratton has kept his promise to visit every classroom. His approachability and responsiveness to concerns from parents and staff have had an impact also. Goldrick referred to statements in Hernando Sun by Gregg Laskoski that refer to the confidence parents have in Stratton, the positive impact on the educators and administrators, and his calm demeanor in all situations. In an administrator assessment, Stratton scored well in “strength of stability, support and collaboration.” These are qualities, and the experience that Stratton has, that Goldrick says are needed in Hernando County and can be used now rather than wait for an adjustment period with anyone new.
Jason Chase referred to the promise given by the previous board that there would be interviews. As a business owner, Chase said that multiple interviews are necessary when hiring for a key position. Chase sees the interview process as a means of bringing unity to the community.
Lisa Guerin stated that teachers sometimes feel they do not have a “voice” because of the administrator over them. Stratton is different, and after an encounter where they disagreed but were able to come to a solution which satisfied them both, Guerin said she felt that Stratton gave her a voice. He encouraged her to improve and to continue her education. She said Stratton will give teachers a voice.
Lisa Masserio spoke in favor of the interview process. She said that she agrees with the comments about Stratton’s strengths but thinks a local search should be done, citing transparency, or completing the vetting process, as a primary reason. Masserio expressed concern that employees might be unable to provide input or even ask questions of candidates, based on what she heard from the informal meeting. The previous superintendent’s actions and directives are still having an impact. Masserio said that a search would help alleviate concerns.
Danielle Underwood said the previous board promised a process with a committee. She complimented Stratton for resolving issues that she and others have brought to his attention. Underwood said that there is no harm in an interview process and expressed confidence that Stratton had the best chance. “It’s not about Mr. Stratton,” she said. “It’s about you, as a board, working for us, the taxpayers.” The committee will provide transparency as there are other qualified persons in the school district the school board should consider.
Don Abbene, who teaches at Central High School, shared a personal reason for supporting Stratton as superintendent. At a time when Abbene had to take time from work to focus on a personal matter and there was a paperwork processing delay, Stratton offered to help him by donating hours. That showed Abbene “servant leadership” in action. Combined with his vision for the district, Abbene said Stratton’s commitment to helping others, his passion, and his leadership will benefit the community.
Kevin Fitzgerald, who volunteered to teach at Moton Elementary last year, shared how his strong roots in the district and his combat experiences give him a perspective on leadership. He praised Stratton as one of the best leaders he has worked for, citing Stratton’s active listening, fairness and transparency. Actions back up Stratton’s words and he trusts district staff, Fitzgerald said, inspiring them to do more. Stratton’s experiences in various positions at both school and district levels since 2005 give him an understanding of education in all aspects. Since funding is an issue, Fitzgerald asked why it was necessary to seek another candidate. Keeping Stratton will help the district continue to move forward and not lose momentum.
Gregg Laskoski said a candidate search would be understandable under ordinary circumstances, but this is not an ordinary time. He referred to his article in the 12/28/18 issue of Hernando Sun. In the article Laskoski briefly explained the case of Citizens for Strong Schools vs The Florida State Board of Education, that approximately 500,000 of Florida’s students are failing reading and the FDOE has a constitutional obligation to provide a quality education. One reason given is that there is no obligation, but it is an aspiration. Laskoski said the governor’s appointed Education Commissioner has no educational background or experience. Since 1973, Hernando County has consistently received lower than average funds from the State, he said, and the mandate to harden the schools will not come with resources to meet the expenses. Population increases in the county will require new schools soon. Stratton understands all of this, Laskoski said. “Let’s stick with the most valuable asset you already have rather than go through a process that is going to consume two things we don’t have: time and money.”
Patricia Greenwood said she has known Stratton for more than 10 years and agrees with the positive statements given but advocated for the interview process. She expressed concern that Dr. Romano’s ideas and processes are too entrenched in the current leadership. Greenwood said she hopes the interview process will prompt a change at the district level.
Patricia Cramer agrees with the supportive comments and said, “Teaching and learning, and building brighter futures is a hallmark of our district.” She complimented Stratton for his dedication to those ideals but asked for the search process to select the best qualified candidate, whether that person is from inside the district or not, to lead the district into that brighter future.
Toni-Ann Noyes, principal at Nature Coast Technical High School, said she has served under many different superintendents. Speaking directly to Stratton, Noyes said, “What you have given us as a leader is something we haven’t seen in a long time.” She spoke of the impact he had simply by asking what he could do for the school secretarial staff. “You have made such a difference to our schools,” she said, and expressed that as staff, they feel they can speak without fear of repercussions. “We want to continue to grow as a district.” A search may yield a well-qualified individual but building trust will take years. Noyes said Stratton has experience as a teacher, principal, and administrator at the district level, and hiring someone else would be a mistake.