NEW PORT RICHEY — When Frank Parker announced he would not seek re-election, he guaranteed that the Pasco County School Board would have a new majority when it reorganizes in November.
Two educators and a developer decided to seek Parker's District 5 seat, which includes northwest Pasco down the coast to New Port Richey.
Now George Brazier, Steve Luikart and Mark Swartsel are seeking to distinguish themselves to voters as absentee ballots already are being delivered.
Brazier, 41, stressed that he's "fully, 100 percent vested" in the school system because both he and his wife, Stacey, work for the district and all four of their children attend the public schools.
"I'm part of the system," said Brazier, a Gulf High School teacher. "It's not like I'm on the outside looking in."
Luikart, 59, retired from the school district after 32 years. He said his inside knowledge of school operations and budgets make him uniquely situated to serve the board.
Swartsel, 58, stressed his role as a real estate agent and business owner as distinguishing his candidacy. He noted that he also has served in several leadership roles including Planning and Zoning Commission chairman, and said he would bring an important point of view to the board when the budget demands tough choices. "I had concerns that there may not be enough good business leadership on the board," said Swartsel, owner of Woodland Waters Realty.
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George Brazier grew up in Tampa, and has lived in Pasco County for 14 years. He joined the Pasco County School District as a teacher in 1996.
"We need to make sure that the kids' interests are put first," said Brazier, whose youngest son enters kindergarten in the fall.
He suggested that in his role as a teacher, he could help bridge the gap between the administration and employees. This is key while morale is sinking amid an "us vs. them" mentality, he said.
"Morale is in the Dumpster," he said. "The superintendent has an unhappy work force."
Simply taking time to acknowledge employees' work, and to ask for their input, could go a long way — especially when raises again look unlikely.
On the issues, Brazier tried to balance teacher needs with budget realities.
He does not support changes to the class size amendment, despite concerns among many that the strict caps now in place might prove too costly and inflexible. They allow teachers to spend more time with individual students and, as a special education teacher, Brazier said he is aware that "every kid is not the same."
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Steve Luikart is a lifelong Pasco County resident.
He decided to run for School Board after reading a letter to the editor urging someone with school experience to stand up and serve. Recently retired from River Ridge High, Luikart took the message to heart.
"I don't think that perspective has been taken into account," he said.
And when the School Board acts, he said, it's the viewpoint that matters most.
"The classroom is where everything starts," Luikart said. "That has to be the priority."
When cuts are made, he said, they need to touch classrooms and students last. Yet when the administration presented the School Board with options, he observed, 17 of 19 recommendations directly affected students and classrooms.
Knowing the ins and outs of the district's budget and accounting will help find the right places to reduce spending, he said.
"Those are tough decisions," he said. "You have to look at 25 departments and say, 'Folks, we've got to cut budgets here.' "
He noted, for instance, that the staff development department has seven employees and a $19 million budget.
"We could do without staff development," Luikart said. "We could probably do without a couple of departments."
He also proposed working with lawmakers to end inflexible funding streams. He suggested that the state might survive without buying new textbooks for every subject over the next six years, and the money could go toward other areas, such as merit pay.
Luikart said he backs the idea of small class sizes, but supports Amendment 8 to give schools more flexibility. He says any talk of furloughs should begin at administrative and district level jobs, before other staff.
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Mark Swartsel also was born and raised in Pasco County, attending Gulf High School with Luikart and running several businesses here. His family came here in 1917.
He has led several organizations, including the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce, and served on government boards. Such experiences make up for any lack of insider knowledge, he suggested.
Swartsel was a surprise candidate, not announcing until the final day of qualifying. He already had donated money to Luikart's campaign.
He said he had toyed with the idea of running previously and watched the board from afar. District issues have become particularly important to Swartsel, he said, as his three sons move through the school system.
"I did have concerns with there being three open seats," he added. "I had concerns that there might not be enough good business leadership on the board."
Now that he's cut back on work commitments, Swartsel said, he has time to offer to the district.
"I'm a quick study," he added.
On financial matters, Swartsel said he wouldn't bring answers so much as questions as the board moves toward its mandate of balancing the budget.
"Every school board is having to look deep, deep, deep into their budgets and to trim fat out of there," he said. "I'm not convinced that there aren't areas that can't be tackled without impacting the teachers or impacting kids' education."
Swartsel said he supports changes to the class size amendment to free up resources. He also backs increasing the district's technology capabilities so that education can become more efficient and effective.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.