The words “intimidation” and “bullying” have become a mantra during the public comment period at recent school board meetings, and today's session was no exception.
Board members said they are listening—but in many instances, their hands are tied.
Board meeting after board meeting, there have been comments about intimidation and bullying, board chairwoman Joanne Hurley said. “That’s not what this district is about.”
But to some, that is what it has become.
Barbara Munz, a retired educator who spent 33 years in Pasco County, was among those who addressed the board during the July 3 meeting.
Munz retired just over a year ago, she said. And after spending most of her life working in the district, she has developed strong relationships with her fellow educators.
Several employees have contacted her recently because they have concerns about what is going on in the district office, she said.
“These individuals don’t feel safe voicing their concerns, that’s why I’m here,” Munz said.
Many of them feel intimidated and threatened due to political coercion by the superintendent, she said.
Munz said that some teachers who have expressed concerns to her feel that by not participating in election events they will be marked as a “non-team player.”
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino is up for re-election this year. She faces competition from a number of well-known candidates, including Kurt S. Browning, Florida's former secretary of state.
“Morale is at an all-time low,” Munz said. “This troubles me greatly.”
“It appears that there are things going on that make people feel that way,” Hurley said.
“There is an atmosphere of fear,” said Lynne Webb, president of United School Employees of Pasco.
One of the forces driving that fear is the recent teacher evaluation legislation that puts new teachers on annual contracts that can be renewed or non-renewed for any reason, she said. “This makes people even more hesitant to speak out.”
Board member Steve Luikart noted during the July 3 meeting that those who are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation have no one to contact to voice their concerns on “middle ground.”
“What I’m hearing is most people are afraid to come forward because they’re still in the system.”
Right now there are two different sides and nowhere to go, Luikart said.
Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said that employees are encouraged and expected to report misconduct, and that anyone who comes forward will be protected by whistleblower policies.
“The board does not have the authority to remove a person from a position,” Alfonso said. But if there is a concern in which the superintendent cannot use her staff to investigate a claim, then the board chairwoman can move to investigate that claim, he said.
Alfonso also said that due to the difficulty of “staff investigating staff,” the facts need to be gathered by the chairwoman to substantiate the allegations and then outside counsel should be brought in.
However, once an investigation is complete, the Florida Sunshine Law would make any information gleaned from those investigations a matter of public record, and the names of those who come forward will be exposed.
“Nothing is confidential,” Alfonso said. But employees and staff are protected from retaliation by district policy.
“You can’t be penalized for reporting what you feel is misconduct,” Alfonso said.
Even so, Luikart pointed out, “There’s nothing to prove if you get transferred from one side of the county to the other. I’ve been in the system. I’ve seen things go on. That’s what these people fear.”
If a resulting transfer is retaliatory, the board would have the right to fashion a remedy in that situation, Alfonso said.
Complaints of misconduct can be directed to Hurley, who has expressed her desire to hear staff concerns. Anyone who comes forward is protected by district policy, Alfonso said.
Hurley can be reached at email@example.com.
Do you know of instances of bullying or intimidation in the Pasco school district? Tell us about them in the comments section.