Move may violate state law

School Board member Jennifer Faliero moves from her district after divorce.

By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2007

TAMPA - Although elected to represent east Hillsborough on the School Board, Jennifer Faliero has moved out of that community and is living in a condominium on Davis Islands.

Faliero says the residence is temporary. She says she had to move out of her longtime Valrico home after a recent divorce. Now a single mother, she says she is struggling financially and a friend offered her a good deal at a South Tampa unit.

But state requirements are clear: School Board members must legally reside in the district from which they were elected.

"It would be a violation of the intent of Florida statutes" to move, said Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Elections.

Faliero, who has enrolled her daughters in two of south Tampa's best-regarded public schools, initially denied she was living there when questioned by the St. Petersburg Times.

A day later, she decided to share the details of a situation she acknowledges having tried to keep "under the radar."

"My intent was not to leave the district, but I really had no choice but to find other places to live," said Faliero, 44. "I sort of looked at this as like taking an extended leave of absence, except I didn't have to go to Europe to do it."

She doesn't consider the condo her home, but rather "a place where I've been able to find some peace, pull my thoughts together, pull my head together."

Faliero has been notably absent at School Board meetings this summer. From July to mid-August, she missed five meetings and workshops - half of the last 10 scheduled.

Faliero said she took some time off to be with her daughters and took a trip out to California "to try to figure things out."

She and Kenny Faliero, her husband of 18 years, filed for divorce last October, shortly after she won re-election with 73 percent of the vote. She represents most of Brandon, Plant City and parts of southeast Hillsborough.

Under the divorce settlement finalized in late January, they share custody of their daughters, ages 14 and 11. Faliero does not receive alimony or child support. She says it's been a struggle to support a family on her $40,887 School Board salary. She is looking for a second income.

Faliero had hoped to sell her home of 14 years in the Buckhorn subdivision, but it sat on the market. Faced with mounting debt, she recently signed it over to her ex-husband. She moved out in June and settled onto Davis Islands.

Daughter hated move

She said they jointly decided to enroll their children in South Tampa schools. He had also moved to South Tampa. After a recent burglary, however, he has returned to the Valrico home.

"I can't tell you that I made the best decision," said Faliero, noting that her ninth-grader hated leaving her friends. "I can't tell you where they are going to be in three weeks, because that could very well change."

After five years in office, Faliero hopes for understanding from constituents. She got it Thursday from Julie Ames, an active PTA mother with three children at Lithia Springs Elementary in southeast Hillsborough.

"Jennifer's been a great representative. She listens to people, and she's sincere wherever you talk to her," said Ames, 45, who was sorry to learn of her recent divorce and move. "I don't think it's going to affect her ability to represent us at this time."

Her sentiments were echoed by other parents in east Hillsborough, where Faliero is known for responding to their concerns. A stay-at-home mother, she entered politics after raising concerns about poor planning for growth. She soon emerged as an outspoken conservative on hot-button issues like religious holidays on the school calendar.

In recent months, Faliero has been more muted. Last fall, she surprised some by proposing a higher raise for School Board members than recommended, a motion that was quickly defeated. She has become a strong advocate of Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, giving her a near-perfect evaluation.

Aware of law

Despite her move, Faliero says she fully intends to move back into her district as soon as possible. Meanwhile, she says, her attention remains fixed on east Hillsborough, where she returns to Brandon daily for her daughter's soccer practice.

She is aware of the residency requirements. Under state law, a School Board seat is considered vacated if an elected official moves her residence from the district. The governor would appoint a replacement. Whether a move is permanent or temporary could make a crucial difference, said School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez, who was not aware of Faliero's move.

"I would hate for this to cost me my job," Faliero said, stressing her relief at no longer having to hide her circumstances. "Just by taking one day at a time, I think things will work out. I've been through a lot worse, and I'll get through this."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.