Pasco school officials criticized for allowing Romney rally at stadium
LAND O' LAKES - The Pasco County School District is being accused of violating its own policies by allowing Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to hold a political rally on school grounds Saturday night. Officials with the United School Employees of Pasco say the district and Superintendent Heather Fiorentino are hypocrites for allowing a Republican political event at Land O' Lakes High School's stadium two years after they rejected a request from a Democratic candidate. In July 2010, the board denied gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink's request to film a campaign commercial in a middle school classroom on a Saturday. Sink said she's not happy with what she sees as a double standard. "If they have a policy that's good for Democrats it should be good for Republicans and be applied consistently," Sink said.But she said she's also not surprised that the Romney rally was approved while her commercial was turned down. "That's politics," Sink said. "You've got a Republican controlled school board and a Republican superintendent. That shouldn't be a surprise." At the time, Fiorentino deferred the decision to the school board, but she advised them to reject the request, saying: "I'm not in favor of using our schools for political backdrops. I think you will be opening up a can of worms." Board members agreed with her reasoning. Chairwoman Joanne Hurley said she didn't want "to set a precedent where we become a political backdrop for campaigns of any kind." That's why school board member Steve Luikart said he is confused about Fiorentino's decision to approve the Romney event. He raised concerns Thursday that the rally violates board policy, but the school board doesn't meet again until Nov. 6, so it won't be able to address the situation until after the rally. Luikart said he called the superintendent's office to ask how this situation differed from the Sink request two years ago, but he's not been satisfied with the answers. "One reason I'm given is (the Sink campaign) didn't fill out the proper paperwork, but then I'm told they did fill out the paperwork but were still denied," Luikart said. "When I hear all these things, the only thing I can do is voice my concerns that I'm not sure we are following board policy." Assistant Superintendent Renalia DuBose said Fiorentino was authorized to approve the Romney request, and that it is no different from a church group or any other organization renting a school facility for a public event. DuBose said the Alex Sink request wasn't rejected for political reasons. "It was rejected because we have never rented our buildings to be used for filming a commercial," she said. However, she was not aware of any provision in the Romney contract restricting the campaign from using footage at Saturday's event in a paid political ad. Kenny Blankenship, instructional vice president of the teachers' union, said the decision smacked of "obvious hypocrisy." He said school cheerleaders received text messages saying their attendance is mandatory and that they must cheer for Romney. He also complained that for several hours the school's website had a link to the Romney campaign for people to request tickets. Ric Mellin, principal at Land O' Lakes High, removed the link and sent out a tweet on Twitter Thursday afternoon: "Mitt Romney to hold rally at LOLHS on Saturday night. The (District School Board of Pasco County) is not responsible for the event, nor do we have tickets to distribute." The Romney camp is paying the district $2,000 to hold the rally at Land O' Lakes High School's stadium. DuBose said campaign officials first contacted the district last weekend. Normally, such a request would have to be submitted six weeks in advance and go to the school board for approval. But DuBose said the district policy gives the superintendent leeway to approve use agreements if the event would take place before the next school board meeting. Florida Democratic Party Vice Chair Alison Morano said she has been fielding phone calls from angry Pasco residents. "I think it's a huge double standard, and I think the Romney campaign needs to change their venue," she said. "If the Romney camp is going to act like political hacks, they should go somewhere else and do it." Morano, a Pasco resident, said she recalled the controversy over the Sink denial. "Now, we're talking about completely doing a 180? There's a lot of outraged people in the county." Hillsborough County schools allow officeholders to visit at local schools, but the district does not allow "political events" on school property during work hours.
Tribune reporters Rob Shaw and Jerome Stockfish contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 371-1853 Twitter: @rblairTrib email@example.com (813)371-1852 Twitter: @lkinslerTrib