School board tabs Martin County woman as next superintendent

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A candidate eliminated by a search committee, then reinstated almost two weeks ago per the request of School Board member John Sweeney, has been selected as the next superintendent of schools.

The Hernando County School Board voted 3-2 to enter into contract negotiations with Lori Romano, director of adult, community and virtual education for Martin County Public Schools. Romano was the last of five interviews conducted by the school board.

“I am honored and excited that the School Board has the trust and faith in my ability to lead the Hernando County School District,” Romano said. “ I would like to thank all of the staff and community members that I had the opportunity to meet this week and look forward to a long working relationship.”

School board members called her interview Thursday morning “impressive,” and after a short recess, selected her about an hour later.

The context of discussions preceding her nomination involved the district entering into unchartered waters, and recommendations among board members to vote with their heads, not their hearts.

“I got the feeling of visiting a country I know nothing about, and I had a good tour guide,” board member Gus Guadignino said about Romano’s interview. “At this point, she’s my lead runner.”

Board members Dianne Bonfield and Sweeney were of the same opinion. However, while Romano was among the top-three for board members Matt Foreman and Cynthia Moore, both were of the opinion in-house candidate Ken Pritz should be selected.

“In my heart, my list would be different, but I feel we need someone who has been around, and who knows and has worked with the school system,” Moore said.

“If we were going with our hearts, and not our heads, it would be a different situation, but this is a business decision for each of us and what’s best for our community, not when we go to the grocery store,” Foreman said, and that he’s lost sleep over the decision because of how he feels about Sonya Jackson. “If we don’t select one of these in-house candidates, you have to consider they’ve been passed over several times and may feel there’s nothing left for them here.”

Superintendent candidate Diana Greene, who is deputy superintendent of Marion County Public Schools, received high-praise from school board members, as well. Greene also was among the top three for several board members, and follow-up calls about Greene were described as revealing a character that was a businesswoman at heart, but also a compassionate side of her akin to teacher and educator.

Ultimately, the board saw too many parallels between Greene and former-superintendent Wayne Alexander and memories of strife that existed in those times.

“Professionally, he was hard to deal with,” Bonfield said, adding that his personal life overtook his professional life. “You can’t serve two masters.”

“I’ve heard a lot of people say she resembles Dr. Alexander, and coming from a business perspective … when you have that kind of leadership, or an axe-man if you will, you give them a certain mission to do and a certain timeframe to do it,” Guadignino said, and said that there comes a time to bring someone in with the Band-Aids. “Up until this morning, she was my No. 1 pick, but Lori Romano has that sweetness and background about her.”

Bonfield agreed initially with Moore to select an internal candidate, noting that Sonya Jackson is the only candidate interviewed who actually has direct superintendent experience, since she served as interim superintendent prior to Blavatt’s nomination.

In addition, Bonfield praised Jackson’s experience as assistant superintendent for three years, and her knowledge of the community. But amid talk of scheduling second interviews, Bonfield questioned, based on her knowledge of board members, whether that would sway their opinions.

“I’ve learned being on this board, you can have ideas, but you have to count to three or nothing gets done,” Bonfield said. “I’m willing to move Dr. Romano to my first choice and count to three.”

Board members said it was hard to gauge from Romano’s resume that she oversaw 70 people, or wrote multi-million dollar grants to span over five-year periods. Board members also said that Romano comes from that handful of school districts that they often study to better understand what they are doing that Hernando County isn’t in the effort to improve schools here.

“I was impressed they’re second in the state for graduation, and let’s face it, that’s what we’re all about,” Bonfield said. “She’s taken schools from B’s to A’s, and that’s very important to not only hone that knowledge but implement it in the schools.”

Romano also appealed to the board for her connections in Tallahassee, having been director of state personnel development and program evaluation for nine years with the Florida Department of Education.

Foreman, an attorney, said in his line of work it is often the case one cannot put stock in a person’s word, but sees Pritz as a person of his word. Foreman resurrected a comment Pritz made during his interview, in which he disclosed that he was enrolled in the state’s retirement system, and would opt-out of it so that he would not receive any prospective financial gains upon retirement by becoming superintendent.

“One of the things that shows he wants to be superintendent is because he’s willing to take the financial hit,” Foreman said. “He gave what I think is an incredible self-assessment on his part … he says what’s on his mind, and you know what he’s thinking: I like that.”

Part of the decision to eliminate superintendent candidate Rebecca Fleck on Thursday morning was because she failed to do the same, which had been verified Wednesday by follow-up calls made by Bonfield. The board also was of the opinion that Fleck’s interview was not as outstanding as the other four’s.

The board also voted unanimously to allow the board chair, school board attorney, and Executive Director of Business Services Heather Martin head contract negotiations. If negotiations fall flat with Romano, school board members recommended emergency sessions be called, as has been done in the past.

“We have seen negotiations fall apart before,” Sweeney said. “Seeing if that happens, and this strong support for Ken Pritz, I feel we should make him aware.”

Foreman also advised that Bryan Blavatt’s contract does not expire until June 28, so the board will still have time to make an appropriate decision.

Blavatt advised the board that, if a candidate is selected without unanimity, not to carry that vote in a begrudging way.

“Whatever you folks decide, once the decision is made you must have a unified front and speak as one,” Blavatt said. “It’s imperative that whoever you select, once the decision is made — it’s over.”

At their April 16 meeting, the school board is scheduled to finalize and approve the contract terms of the selected candidate, Romano, at their April 16 meeting. Unless contract negotiations fail, Romano is expected to begin work July 1.

Hernando County School district has 23 work sites, about 22,750 students, close to 3,000 full-time employees and up to 300-400 part-time employees. The superintendent position was advertised at a negotiable annual salary range between $100,000 and $130,000, with benefits.