BROOKSVILLE — A room full of people clothed in purple erupted in frustration before Hernando County school officials Tuesday night, scolding Superintendent Lori Romano for the recent firing of 47 high-ranking teachers at Moton Elementary.
The School Board meeting is the first time the superintendent has spoken publicly about her action, which teachers learned of on the afternoon of April 13.
"The disrespect that has been shown to the teachers, students and families at Moton is reprehensible," said Susan Pribil, a veteran teacher at West Hernando Middle School. "The district motto states: 'We are Hernando. This place is our home.' Are the teachers are families at Moton not part of our district family? Is Hernando not their home as well?"
After hearing at least 30 people speak against her action, Romano explained her reasoning for the change, largely reiterating information previously released by district spokesperson Karen Jordan.
If Moton — rated a D by the Florida Department of Education for the past two years — rates that low again when school grades come out this summer, Romano will in October ask state officials for a year-long extension to turn the school around.
If denied, Hernando would lose control of Moton completely, the superintendent said.
“The state board will not grant us approval for the additional year unless the district can commit to making significant changes,” Romano said. “You all can blame, you all can point fingers … If you think that was an easy decision … it was not an easy decision.”
More than 100 parents, teachers and community members squeezed into the School Board meeting chambers. Many wore purple, one of Moton's school colors and several spoke to board members, pleading with them to give Moton teachers their jobs back.
Some sported pins that said "Who's next?" Others had in tow a neon pink paper titled "Pink slip" with Romano's name on it. A handful of those and a five-foot replica were placed on the floor in front of the superintendent.
"Maybe you're the one who should be pink-slipped," Dana Cottrell, a community member who recently announced her candidacy for a spot in the U.S. House of Representatives, said to Romano.
"You need to go," said Pam Everett, founder of Better Education Services, a small nonprofit that advocates for students Hernando.
Also in attendance was Joanne McCall, president of Florida Education Association, the parent organization of Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, the county's union for instructional staff.
"You wouldn't think that a president of a statewide organization would get emotional, but I am," she said, teary-eyed. "Just because a law says you can do it, doesn't make it morally right."
HCTA last week sent grievance and cease and desist letters to the district, both saying Romano's action is a "unilateral change" that goes against the union's 2017-2020 contract with the School Board.
The contract states that annual-contract teachers with a rating of highly effective will be reappointed, given that there is a place at their school and they meet typical hiring requirements.
All Moton teachers rated either effective or highly effective — the two highest ratings possible — on their most recent evaluations, district data shows.
Romano's decision makes it so that regardless of their rating, teachers on one-year contracts at Moton must reapply to work in the district. Eighteen of the 47 teachers who have tenure in Hernando will be placed at other county schools.
Many speakers criticized the timing of the news, which hit in the midst of state testing. Scores from those tests factor into the grade Moton will receive in July — and a C or better would grant the district full control of the school, making Romano's plan superfluous.“What on earth do you think that does to the student’s psyches?” McCall said. “You’re already telling them that they’re failing before they ever get their test scores back.”
Romano said "timing is never good" for firing people. When asked why it couldn't wait until after testing, the superintendent said she wanted to give Moton teachers ample time to find new jobs.
Teaching positions at Moton are open now, but listings for other jobs in the district won't be posted until May 7, Romano said. Testing ends May 8, according to Moton Principal Brent Guastad.
The School Board mostly sat listening. When public comments concluded, board member Susan Duval spoke up first.
“While I can appreciate the complexity of the struggles at Moton Elementary School, I am also very concerned,” she said. “I am sorry that the teachers and students find themselves in this difficult situation.”
Board member Beth Narverud offered an apology, too, and said she hopes to revisit and rectify. Board member Linda Prescott called the ordeal "heartbreaking."
"I have to think it was done for the right reason," she said.
In unison, many in the crowd replied: "It wasn't."
"I think the intentions are best for the school … I don't know if I would have handled it the same way," board member Gus Guadagnino said. "I will keep everyone in my prayers."
Board Chairman Mark Johnson reassured the crowd, which grew rowdy toward the end of the meeting.“I don’t think anyone’s voice tonight was lost on this board,” he said.
Near the end of her speech, Romano encouraged the still-displeased crowd to come to her with questions.
"I will own this decision … I will stand firm in this decision because I have to stand in front of that state board and convince them, " she said. "Let's stop pointing fingers at each other and criticizing … Let's fight to keep Moton Elementary open as our school."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.