BROOKSVILLE — Superintendent candidate Lori Romano needed to wow the Hernando County School Board in her interview Thursday morning.
She did just that.
In a decision that caught many in the district off guard, board members chose an administrator with Martin County public schools, Lori Romano, to lead the Hernando school system and guide it through Florida's rapidly changing educational landscape.
The board on Thursday voted 3-2 to enter into negotiations with Romano, who is the current director of adult, community, secondary and virtual education programs in Martin.
"If I knew that the school system would be the same in the next five years as it has been in the last five, there would be no doubt I would go with an inside person," said School Board Vice Chairman Gus Guadagnino during board deliberations. "But knowing that the education system that we're entering is going into uncharted waters … I have to stay with my first pick and go with the person I believe knows those uncharted waters."
Board members Dianne Bonfield and John Sweeney joined Guadagnino in casting the deciding votes. Board Chairman Matt Foreman and board member Cynthia Moore voted against Romano. Both supported Hernando assistant superintendent Ken Pritz, who failed in his third bid to become superintendent of the district he has worked in for more than three decades.
"I am honored and excited that the board has the trust in me and the faith in my ability," Romano said Thursday afternoon over the phone. "I look forward to a long relationship."
Romano, 41, said she was not surprised to get the call. "I believe in my ability to lead and to work with the community and to be able to make positive progress," she said.
Others were more surprised by the decision.
Although she was one of the final seven, Romano was not among the five candidates recommended by the citizen committee charged with reviewing superintendent applicants. Only Sweeney expressed any strong desire to interview her and add her to the list of finalists in a recent workshop. Bonfield agreed to interview her because she said she would support other board members' desires.
Romano has also never held positions as a principal or assistant superintendent.
Thursday's interview appears to have clinched it for Romano.
Board members especially liked her nine years working with the Florida Department of Education — the only candidate with that type of state experience.
"Her interview was spectacular," said Bonfield. "She has a wealth of knowledge she can bring to us. Especially that Tallahassee connection because we know how difficult it is sometimes for our voices to be heard in Tallahassee."
Bonfield initially listed Hernando assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson as her top choice, but moved Romano up when it became clear the support wasn't there for Jackson.
Before Thursday, Bonfield said, she hadn't realized the importance of Romano's supervising role in Martin County. She was impressed that Martin has the second-highest graduation rate in the state and that Romano helped take schools from "B" grades to "A" grades.
Until the interview, Guadagnino said he had Diana Greene as his front runner. He liked her background and her aggressiveness — one that drew comparisons to former superintendent Wayne Alexander.
He feels Romano has the necessary background for the dramatic changes that are coming to Florida schools. He said he felt as if he was traveling through a foreign country and Romano was his tour guide.
"In my eyes, once again, it's Lori that has that track record that makes me feel comfortable," he said.
He was impressed with her desire to see that all of the district and school's priorities are aligned.
He also cited what he saw as a certain "sweetness" about her.
Sweeney said Romano struck him as a "systems person."
"She is able to make the links and the connections to student achievement," he said.
He said he was impressed with her drive and commitment.
Board members were impressed with Pritz and Greene.
Moore, in making her case for Pritz, said he knows the district. She was impressed with his interview.
"I feel like we need somebody who has been around, who knows things, who has worked with the administration in the school system," Moore said. "But I feel like I need somebody who's not going to hit the ground and not know anything about it."
"She already has studied the school improvement plans, she knows our strategic plan, she knows how Tallahassee works and that alone tells me she can hit the ground running," Bonfield said, adding that "she is still going to have Mr. Pritz and Mrs. Jackson as her assistant superintendents."
Bonfield took issue with Pritz being in the Deferred Retirement Option Program, which means he would have to retire in less than three years — unless he opted out.
Pritz said he would do that — taking the accompanying financial blow — if the board still wanted him to be superintendent at that time.
Foreman strongly supported Pritz.
"I think one of the things that shows how badly he wants to be superintendent, is the fact that he said, 'I will take the financial hit to get this,' " Foreman said.
Sweeney said Romano and Pritz were both his top candidates.
"I had them both as No. 1," he said after the vote. "I would've been happy either way."
He said he went with Romano, saying, "she had more consensus with the board." He noted that Pritz wasn't among the top candidates for either Guadagnino or Bonfield.
"It's important to come into a board that's unified," Sweeney said. "He didn't have that. I couldn't ask him to be in that position."
Retiring superintendent Bryan Blavatt gave similar advice.
"Once a decision is made and the contract is signed, it's important to be unified in your support of the superintendent," he said.
Danny Valentine can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.