BROOKSVILLE –– A room full of people wearing purple erupted in frustration before Hernando County school officials Tuesday night, scolding Superintendent Lori Romano for her recent firing of 47 teachers at Moton Elementary, which has been struggling academically for years.
It was the first time the superintendent spoke publicly about her action, which teachers learned about on April 13. Multiple calls to Romano from the Tampa Bay Times since then have gone unanswered.
"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.
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 must ask state officials in October for a year-long extension to turn the school around.
If denied, Hernando would lose control of Moton by the start of the 2019-20 school year, 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, while others listened from the hallway. Many wore purple, one of Moton’s school colors, and pleaded with officials to give Moton teachers their jobs back.
The board took no action on the matter, fueling an already displeased crowd.
Some in attendance sported purple buttons that said: "Who’s next?" Others carried neon-pink papers entitled "pink slip," with Romano’s name on it, calling for her immediate termination. They placed a handful of those and a poster-sized replica on the floor in front of the superintendent.
"Maybe you’re the one who should be pink-slipped," said Dana Cottrell, a community member who recently announced her candidacy for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Also in attendance was Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, the parent organization of Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, the county teachers’ union.
"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 a grievance, and cease and desist letter to the district, saying Romano’s action is a "unilateral change" that goes against the union’s 2017-2020 contract with the School Board.
In accordance with the contract, union representatives will meet with John Stratton, the district’s executive director of business services, who delivered the news to Moton teachers.
If they don’t find a resolution, legal arbitration between the entities will begin, said Kevin Oliveira, executive director of HCTA.
The contract says that annual-contract teachers with a rating of highly effective will be reappointed if 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 action goes against that, ruling that regardless of their rating, teachers on one-year contracts at Moton must reapply to work in the district. Eighteen of the 47 Moton teachers have tenure in Hernando and will be placed at other county schools.
Several speakers criticized the timing of the action, which hit in the midst of state testing. Scores from those tests factor into the grade Moton will receive in July.
Getting a C or better would grant the district full control of the school, making Romano’s plan to go before the state unnecessary.
"What on earth do you think that does to the student’s psyche as they’re trying to take their test?" McCall asked. "You’re already telling them they’re failing before they ever get their scores back."
Romano said the "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 Gaustad, who said he supports the superintendent.
"When you’re a principal, there are some decisions that are not yours to make," Gaustad said after the meeting. "My job is to right the ship and give students the stability I can."
When public comments concluded, board member Susan Duval spoke up.
"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" the action. Board member Linda Prescott, a retired Hernando teacher, called the ordeal "heartbreaking."
"I have to think it was done for the right reason," she said.
The crowd replied in unison: "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," said board member Gus Guadagnino. "I will keep everyone in my prayers."
Board Chairman Mark Johnson reassured the still-rowdy crowd.
"I don’t think anyone’s voice tonight was lost on this board," he said.
Romano encouraged those in the 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.