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Marking the beginning of a new era in Pasco County schools, state Rep. Heather Fiorentino got a huge promotion Tuesday, ascending from a part-time teacher to superintendent overseeing 59,000 students and 7,500 employees.
Voters overwhelmingly handed the 46-year-old Republican a victory over Democratic challenger Alice Delgardo, a relative newcomer to Pasco who hoped to give voters a non-Republican alternative.
"I think people have wanted a change, but not a drastic change," said Fiorentino, who campaigned on a promise to increase employee morale. The first thing she said she planned to do when in office was "listen."
Her job change brings an annual pay increase of at least $130,000, not including the salary she received as a legislator.
Fiorentino, a resident of New Port Richey, served six years in the state House of Representatives while working part time at the school district office. Before that, she spent 14 years as a classroom teacher. She gained a political foothold after first being elected to the New Port Richey City Council in 1993.
The former Pasco County Teacher of the Year narrowly edged out school finance chief Chuck Rushe in the Aug. 31 primary that pitted school district leaders against Republican heavies. Fiorentino was even endorsed by Gov. Jeb Bush.
Tuesday's general election victory signals a turning point in a school district that has experienced relatively little change in leadership since 1974, when Thomas Weightman won his first term as superintendent.
Weightman held the seat for nearly 22 years until he resigned and secured a gubernatorial appointment for then assistant superintendent John Long. Long, who pushed for Rushe's election, retires Nov. 15.
Though the latest round of the superintendent's race was far less contentious than the Fiorentino-Rushe primary, Fiorentino has said all along that she wasn't taking a victory Tuesday for granted.
Delgardo offered polite competition for Fiorentino, but the 52-year-old Holiday resident campaigned full time, even quitting her nursing job at Arden Courts HCR Manor Care, to gain name exposure.
Though she started out as a relative unknown at the time she announced her candidacy, Delgardo gained support of Democratic loyals who touted her master's degree in education and work history in comparison with Fiorentino's limited administrative experience.
Delgardo, a licensed practical nurse with experience managing governmental programs, could not be reached as the results were rolling in Tuesday night. But Fiorentino praised her as a "class act."
"I appreciate her efforts and how she made it about the issues and about education," Fiorentino said.
The superintendent's position pays $145,869 annually, plus a possible $7,500 supplement from the state. Last year, as a part-time teacher on special assignment at the district office, Fiorentino made $15,487, according to her financial disclosures. She also made $29,802 as a legislator.