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School Board to Investigate Claims of Political Coercion

A retired teacher says for many in the district, "morale is at an all-time low."

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 jhurley@pasco.k12.fl.us.

Do you know of instances of bullying or intimidation in the Pasco school district? Tell us about them in the comments section.

Bryan Gifford July 03, 2012 at 06:39 PM
The snowball is gaining mass and momentum. Best part is that it just started rolling, lets hope that in the election it gathers up Fiorentino and rolls her right out of office.
PascoMom July 03, 2012 at 11:13 PM
What is it going to take to get Anna Falcone out of Connerton? It's obvious she has Heather Fiorentino in her pocket and it seems like Fiorentino has free reign to do as she pleases (and apparently so does Falcone).
Denise Houston July 04, 2012 at 02:03 AM
its not just the School Board
Lori July 04, 2012 at 08:51 AM
I do not have any children in school any longer but I assure you after researching and reading every comment about the situation at Connerton Ms. Florentino will not be getting my vote, nor my friends and family.
Roxie Spell July 04, 2012 at 11:17 AM
You are correct Denise, it is in ALL government. I have been a volunteer for Pasco County Schools for the past 11 years, I remember a time when the head of the union at the school I was volunteering was encouraging everyone to change their party to Rep.Every time Fiorentino came to the school they would embrace in the front office, such a GREAT friend. I felt that what she (head of union) was doing was VERY wrong, there were 2 teachers who were also disgusted and angry that anyone would try to coerce anyone to change political parties to vote for HER candidate. (they were not allowing themselves bullied into it and I believe it was because they were retiring the next year.) We need to educate ourselves on what is happening in this political climate. It is NOT good. Read about each candidate and all they have done and what they stand for, you can google anyone. Then VOTE!
Gail Collins July 04, 2012 at 02:28 PM
Oh for the days when government wasn't involved in our schools, neither were the unions,community spirit abounded, budgets were met and kept and our kids got a good education................
Gregg Bailey July 05, 2012 at 03:03 AM
Mark Twain said it best. "Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.. The school board and key players has deep pockets. The school board members vent and collect their checks. Why not---Litigate, negotiate and compensate. There are issues that needs attention and the issues did not start over nite. Just my opinion
Gregg Bailey July 05, 2012 at 03:12 AM
Remember it is not for the money but to get the other persons attention to cooperate.
Diane Carlstrom July 05, 2012 at 03:30 AM
I agree with Denise and Roxie, it's everywhere. It's all a part of the game in which $ and influence choose the winners. Take a little time and look at what's going on in Tallahassee where lobbyists can straight out write a check to whichever legislator they choose to buy. This is the stuff that is trickling down. We need to get $ out of our gov't, local, state and fed. We need laws that take power out of lobbyists hands and puts it back into the peoples hands. The problem is it's the people collecting the cash that have to write and pass those laws. Anyone see that happening? I don't.

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