Thursday, Dec 18, 2014
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New schools chief on the job Lori Romano begins 'whirlwind tour' of district she will lead

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BROOKSVILLE - One way to begin a "whirlwind tour" would be to move multiple counties west, without your family and on accrued time, to begin training without pay as CEO of an organization with 22,750 students and 3,400 employees set to go full-force in seven weeks when school begins.

Lori Romano, new Hernando County school superintendent, appreciated the flowers.

"First and foremost, it's been a very welcoming environment," Romano said. "My staff had the office prepared, and flowers waiting for me, and I just hit the ground running."

Romano, 41, and former director of adult, community and virtual education for Martin County Public Schools, walked through district office doors for the first time Monday as new school superintendent, and started meeting immediately with executive leaders, she said.

"I've been learning about their work, and building in process and procedure with them as I learn about their work," Romano said. "It's been good, just very exciting to finally be here."

In the majority opinion of the school board, the feeling is mutual: A 3-2 decision in mid-March tagged Romano for the job and initiated a pressing two-month negotiation phase that at times produced an atmosphere of doubt with next year's budget still to draft.

But School Board member John Sweeney didn't seem too concerned then. If things didn't work out the way they did in early May with final 4-1 approval of Romano's contract, the board still had some breathing space with a dedicated then-superintendent Bryan Blavatt still willing to hold down his post, and allow the board time to revisit a refined list of high-quality candidates, not to mention two attorneys named Matt Foreman, board chairman, and Dennis Alfonso working feverishly to meet those deadlines and negotiate a deal.

There was one concern, though, vocalized by the board member who pulled Romano's resume back from the abyss and onto the No. 5 interview slot, which within minutes of its conclusion solidified Romano as the board's prime pick for the advertised $100,000-to-$130,000 salaried position with negotiable fringe benefits.

"She must have looked into the pay scale for the job," Sweeney said then. "And that to me might be a concern."

It was a concern because Romano was making a total salary of $99,365 at Martin County Public Schools, which has approximately 18,000 students to Hernando County's 23,129 students: the question, at the time, was what reason would the board give Romano to relocate to a school district to do more work for the same pay, and as a public figure in a county named after a conquistador.

"She appears to be in a good position," Sweeney said then. "Martin County is a very nice district, and it's a big decision when uprooting a family."

For Romano, that answer was somewhere between the lines of a two-year contract and annual salary amount of $117,000, where after her first year that salary would increase by $3,000, in addition to a roughly $35,000 benefits package.

"The overall compensation package compared to what we're paying to (Blavatt) is a substantial reduction, for whatever that's worth," Foreman said following contract approval. "Dr. Romano took a below-market deal, in my opinion."

And if that's true, then Romano is in a relatable position to those widely felt by educators, who for the month of July will have Romano's ear, she said, and get to meet with her at a critical time when processes and procedures are being implemented.

"I got a grand tour of the entire district facility, and got to meet district level staff, and got here Monday morning myself to learn the lay of the land, and by being with my people," she said. "And one of the executive leaders of staff is taking me on school district sites, and we're calling it the whirlwind tour: It's a lot all at once."

"We're still in the implementation phase," Romano added. "Meeting with executives and listening to them, to learn about their work and tell about their work, so we can together make the best decisions possible."

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