School Superintendent Heather Fiorentino says she is the victim of a "political ambush."
Pasco School Board Chairwoman Joanne Hurley says the board is just following policy.
Either way, the school board ventured into territory Tuesday night that has politics at its core, just a few weeks away from the Aug. 14 Republican primary where Fiorentino will appear on the ballot as she seeks re-election to a third term.
The board, in a unanimous vote, decided to hire an outside counsel to investigate complaints that school district employees have been intimidated into helping Fiorentino with her campaign.
Fiorentino denies any such intimidation and said after the meeting that the board members' action was an effort to "help their friend," a reference to Kurt Browning, her chief rival for the Republican nomination for school superintendent.
"I believe this is all bogus," Fiorentino said.
She said she's not even completely clear on what the claims against her are since all the references during the board discussion revolved around school board policies, cited by number, rather than specific allegations about how those policies might have been violated.
"They are basing this investigation on hearsay," she said.
Board attorney Dennis Alfonso, though, said the allegations the special counsel will investigate are connected to complaints about political coercion that first arose at the July 3 board meeting.
At that meeting, Barbara Munz, a retired principal at Pasco Elementary, told the board that several current district administrators have expressed concerns to her, saying they felt they had no choice but to assist the superintendent with her re-election campaign.
Some even altered their schedules so they could help in the campaign because they feared repercussions, Munz said.
Since then, Hurley has received additional complaints, mostly from people who elected to remain anonymous, Alfonso said.
He said there are no direct allegations that the superintendent asked school district employees to campaign for her, but there are complaints that district-based administrators made those requests on her behalf.
The board plans to hire Tampa attorney Thomas Gonzalez at a cost of $175 an hour to investigate the complaints.
Alfonso said the complaints relate to possible violations of school board policies on civility and political activities. There are no allegations of criminal violations, he said.
He was unsure how long the investigation might take.
That leaves open the question of whether the issue will be resolved by the time voters cast their ballots on Aug. 14. Whoever wins the Republican nomination is expected to become superintendent because the only opposition in November comes from two write-in candidates. No Democrat is running.
Alfonso told the board that using an outside counsel with no connections to the school district was best because it would be inappropriate for either he or the board to investigate the superintendent.
One accusation brought up by Munz that won't be investigated, Alfonso said, was the insinuation that a district administrator was reassigned as political retribution because of her support for Browning.
That administrator never claimed her reassignment was political and the superintendent has the authority to reassign staff members with board approval, Alfonso said. The board must accept such reassignments unless it can show there is "good cause or just cause" to reject the superintendent's recommendation, he said.
The administrator in question has since resigned from the district.
Daniel Hamm, a Hudson resident who often attends board meetings, rose to defend Fiorentino after the board vote, saying the situation "appears to be more a political partisan attack."
Hurley declined to comment on Fiorentino's similar claim that the investigation is politically motivated and designed to assist her opponent.
"As board chair, I simply gave (Alfonso) the information provided to me," Hurley said. "We are trying to follow board policy."